About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Writing and equations

I often look at what I write and wince. I'm never satisfied. There's always something to improve, a sentence to tighten, unnecessary clutter to remove. I write to be understood, unlike some literary works where the goal is to be misunderstood. Think of Joyce.

Although I try to write following Zinsser's advice (as stated in On Writing Well), I didn't learn it from Zinsser.  What I know of it, oddly enough, can be traced to N. David Mermin's article in Physics Today called "What's Wrong With these Equations?".

When I started studying physics, my solutions work was bad. My old study method was to solve problems without explanatory prose, write equations and then obtain the solution. For simple problems, this was alright, but when I started solving more complicated problems, it was a major hassle. I suppose many mature physicists and mathematicians had to learn that one really does need explanatory prose because without it, say, 30 equations away, you would be lost.

It was a good thing that I spent some of my free time reading Physics Today, and it was doubly lucky that I read Mermin's article. If I recall right, I first read it while working on the third part of the mathematical methods in physics course (we have four semesters of it, and used Arfken's text for the first three semesters). Writing, I discovered, was a way to force myself to think clearly about physics and mathematics. If you followed Mermin's rules, you could use them to avoid deceiving yourself that you actually understand the material.

I was so impressed with Mermin's article so that when I first started tutoring math methods, I gave copies of Mermin's article to my supervisees, and had them apply it to their own solutions work. Since most of my thesis adviser's subgroup worked with me, you will find more than a few traces of Mermin's influence in how they write.

Zinsser's role was to codify many of the things I knew: Eliminate clutter; Keep it simple; Writing should please your inner ear. His book is always on my rereading list to remind myself that there is always something I can do better. One inspirational example is on page 10 of On Writing Well: what one of his drafts looks like.  I can't do the same thing on a word processor; saving many versions does not show the editing process as well as writing by hand on a printed draft.

Knowing, sadly, doesn't necessarily mean doing well. Hence the need to edit, and the tendency to wince at what I wrote. That's also one reason I try not to reread my old blog posts-- since I'm never happy with what I write, I'd end up re-editing, which is not good use of my time. I can spend a lot of time composing and editing a new blog post, and the editorial work is hidden. I have to stop somewhere-- here, for example.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ethanol and physics for future presidents

I spent last night reading Physics for Future Presidents by Richard Muller. It's a physics book intended for a general audience (not much in the way of mathematics-- only arithmetic!). The most timely issues (post Fukushima) discussed are radioactivity and nuclear power plants, but it also talks about terrorism, alternative energy sources and global warming.

The funniest thing I learned though is the radioactivity requirement that drinkable alcohol (wine, spirits, etc) must satisfy, at least in the United States. Drinkable alcohol, as mandated by law, should be radioactive. If the activity falls below a mandated threshold, the alcohol is considered unfit for human consumption. In  Muller's own words:

"Alcohol is radioactive too-- at least the kind we drink .... In fact, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tests wine, gin, whiskey, and vodka for radioactivity. A fifth of whiskey must emit at least 400 beta rays every minute or the drink is considered unfit for human consumption." 

The reason? Since ethyl alcohol can be produced from crude oil, the only way we can differentiate the two is via radioactivity. The ethyl from fruits and other fermented products contain radioactive Carbon 14 absorbed from the atmosphere. Crude oil, although also from plants and animals that absorbed radioactive Carbon 14 , differs from recently dead plant matter (from which we get the raw materials for fermentation) in that radioactive carbon in crude oil has decayed long ago.

Now ethyl alcohol, no matter how it's produced, is chemically identical. This means it doesn't matter what you drink: the effects will still be the same. The reason such a law was made is economic. If the process that extracts ethanol from crude oil becomes cheaper than fermentation, then it would make sense to drink ethanol produced from crude oil. The law exists to make this alternative illegal, thus protecting vineyards and other industries that use fermentation from competition.

I still don't know which process is more expensive, even after a Google search. While on the hunt, I did learn about why we have denatured alcohol: the law and taxes. Denatured alcohol is ethanol  mixed with other agents (poisons, emetics, bittering agents) to make it undrinkable. Aside from drinking, ethanol has other uses: antiseptics, cleaning agents, etc. Although pure ethanol would be preferred, it would be too expensive since it is heavily taxed. To lower the price, ethanol is mixed with additives to make it undrinkable, hence exempt from the higher tax rates.

As I've said, Muller does talk about other things. The discussion of radioactivity, bombs and power plants is excellent. Someone who has read the book would not have been susceptible to the stupid claims about radioactive materials reaching the Philippines and the ensuing panic. Alas, his book is expensive here in the Philippines, and I suspect, doesn't sell well. I had to borrow my thesis adviser's copy because I couldn't afford to buy it from local bookstores. But if you can get your own copy...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

end of the semester

We had our last lectures yesterday. Next week will be the start of the final exams, and for my own coursework, I have a week to calculate scattering cross-sections for a scalar field interacting with a Dirac field. Part of the work involved will be a derivation of the Feynman rules, and I dread having to do Dyson's expansion and showing all the details.

For my other class, I have four functions that I need to find asymptotic expansions for. Some of them I can do using methods that I know, but these methods will probably be not allowed. The only methods to be used are limited to those that can be found in Wong's book, Asymptotic Approximation of Integrals.

After reading the preface, I realized that the pace at which we went through the lectures was probably too fast for most people in our class. I had an advantage because of the time I spent teaching complex variable methods to our undergraduate apprentices. So some of the material was known to me from other sources. The new thing was the Mellin transform approach to deriving asymptotic expansions, uniform asymptotics and the use of the theory of distributions. .

I'll probably teach the methods as a seminar for our subgroup so that I can better absorb the ideas.We do have a pool of undergraduates who know complex analysis, so it's doable during the spring break.

I have to mark some papers this weekend so that by Tuesday I could give a list of exemptions from the final exam. The work will be for today and tomorrow, so I'll go to school and spend the whole Sunday on marking them all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

New Books and other Drugs

I bought some books today. I was planning on getting myself another copy of Lacson-Locsin's translation of Rizal's Noli Me Tangere, but I couldn't find one in the shelves of the two nearest branches of National Bookstore. On the other hand, for De Guzman-Laksamana-De Guzman's translation, there is no need to fear of running out of copies (unforunately).

Just to make sure that I remembered right, I decided to reread the the Pilospong Tasyo section in De Guzman et al's translation, and I saw that memory served me well. What I forgot about was the Mga Tulong Sa Pag-aaral Section. All translations meant for high schools have end of the chapter questions, and what further irritated me was the question (in Tagalog, of course) "Does Pilosopong Tasyo believe in purgatory?" The bowdlerized translation removes the discussion (along Protestant lines!) of purgatory and then leaves the ironic statement "I believe that the belief in purgatory is a good and holy thing." I could only conclude that the text and the study aid is meant to mislead!

I visited Pandayan bookstore in search of Lacson-Locsin's translation but couldn't find it there either. Since I was there anyway, I bought two books. The bookstore --more of a school supply shop with a second-hand book sale-- had two copies of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, a tale of two protagonists in the construction of the Oxford English Dictionary. Although the book was priced at $ 3, there was a two for one sale, so for the second book, I chose Ondaatje's The English Patient.

I also acquired a second copy of The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha. The book is bulky and inconvenient to bring, especially since my backpack will always have a loptop along with other books and papers, so I would rather have two copies, one for home and the other for school use.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


I was on facebook a few hours ago, reading my friends' posts, and I decided to click on a link that at least five of my friends liked. The link claimed to be for a video with this idea: take photographs everyday for 10 years, and then make a video out of it. I did think it interesting, because  if you could actually get it done, it would be nice to see how someone can change over 10 years. There was a video that showed Michael Jackson's changes in appearance, and I wondered if it would be similar.

So I clicked on it on the belief that if a lot of friends liked it, I might find it good too. Oh boy was I wrong. The link led to a website called foutube, and it looked like a competitor of youtube. However, when I did click on the play button, nothing happened. When I looked at facebook again, to my chagrin, I found that that website was auto-liked and shared on my wall.

I decided to look for a blog post on it, and learned that malicious websites had a hidden script that autoliked and posted in facebook (if you happen to be logged in.) To test it, I logged out of facebook and then went to that website again, and it opened a new window from facebook asking me to log in before they could continue.

Since I couldn't find an unlike button on facebook, I placed a comment underneath the post warning my friends that it was a scam. A few minutes after, I looked at my friends who had liked that website and discovered that it was gone from their walls; I looked at my wall again, and also noticed that my comment and the post had disappeared. It was probably reported by someone else, and taken down by facebook adminstrators.

My new rule: before going to friends' suggested/ liked links, use Google first.

Digitize the Noli?

I don't usually get to read first editions-- I don't visit libraries aside from the physics library-- and it's an expensive task to visit the libraries that do house the various first editions. So it's truly delightful when I was able to read the King James Bible of 1611 (it can be found here at the website of the King James Bible Trust-- note that it lacks the translators' preface and other material, or here at the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Imaging, University of Pennsylvania Library)  as well as a digitized copy of the Codex Sinaiticus.

My interest in first editions can be traced to my confusion as a child at the differences in  the translations of scripture. I noticed (I was an eight-year old) that the Bible verses quoted by our religion textbook (I was in a Catholic school) were different from our copy of the New American Bible. I also noticed that the NAB, in turn, differed from the translation done by the Good News Bible (also known as Today's English Version). This episode sparked my eventual interest in reading different translations, and then in turn to the discipline of textual criticism. 

Textual criticism is a discipline that compares different extant manuscripts of a given work, and then its practitioners try to reconstruct what the original might have looked like. The more  practical goal is to craft a critical text, an edition that in the judgment of the critic, best reflects the lost original manuscript (the autograph), and containing an apparatus where the variant readings, along with their sources are noted.  

The art of textual criticism is not limited to the Bible; any book that has had many manuscripts, printings or editions will fall under its compass. A popular subject of textual criticism is the works of Shakespeare: The common editions now available are smoothed out versions produced by textual critics, due to the need to make choices from the variety of existing editions. Elizabethan printings of Shakespeare differ from each other, sometimes in minor ways, sometimes substantially. If you read Shakespeare, it would not be profitable to plow through this variety, unless you are a textual critic. A casual reader will have other priorities. But for scholarly work, availability of the various editions  and a critical text is a must.

Works that arouse great passions (or revolutions) are vulnerable to expurgation. Shakespeare is not the basis of a religion or national identity, and expurgation is surely not so great an issue compared to the various translations of the Bible. A work like Rizal's Noli Me Tangere is a temptation for the expurgator since it is required reading in schools; passages that are anti-Catholic--and there are many of them!-- would certainly be vulnerable to creative emendation.  

And so I've wondered about the availability of Rizal's work in digitized form. I was able to download Spanish editions of Rizal's Noli Me Tangere, but I've wondered about the extent of expurgation. A digitized copy based on photographs of the first edition (such as the kind I've found at the King James Bible Trust) would be invaluable.     

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bowdler, Rizal and Scripture

There is a long tradition of removing contentious passages in famous (I hesitate to say great) works. The most famous example that I know of is Thomas Bowdler's edition of Shakespeare, wherein he (or his sister Harriet) removed objectionable passages in Shakespeare and then published the sanitized result as The Family Shakespeare. The act was so infamous that his name survives in the term "bowdlerization."

Another act of bowdlerization can be found in the school editions of Rizals' novels. His novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo are required reading (there's actually a law for it) for all secondary and university students. His novels were written as a protest against the abuses of the Spanish colonial government and the friars; these novels were the impetus for the Philippine revolution. (Ironically, Rizal was a reformist, and he believed in making the Philippines a province of Spain, where all indios were to be recognized as Spanish citizens on an equal footing with the peninsulares, that is, those born in Spain.)

When I was a secondary student, I read both novels, and I could not understand why the friars found his novels objectionable. The translation I read was execrable-- we used Maria Odulio de Guzman's translation, and it was written in an extremely stilted form of our national language, Filipino. Everyone had to suffer through it, and some of us escaped reading it by reading the abridged comics version instead.

I have the habit of comparing various editions (and translations) of books that I read, and one of the things that I did as a university student was to buy an English translation of Noli Me Tangere (by Lacson-Locsin). After disliking the novel so much while in high school, I was surprised to find myself (1) enjoying the English translation and (2) encountering passages that I could not remember reading from Maria Odulio de Guzman's translation-- passages, when read, imply the influence of Protestant thinkers. For example, the rivalry between Kapitan Tiyago and an old lady who kept surpassing him in her shows of devotion to the Virgin of Antipolo is lampooned. Another example is a passage where the images of the various saints in Kapitan Tiyago's house is made fun of.

Other passages that would have appalled the friars were those in which Pilosopong Tasyo explained why the idea of purgatory was doubtful, and how the practice of papal indulgences was supposed to be a moneymaking machine for the catholic church.  This long sequence of passages, by the way, is missing from Odulio de Guzman's translation; the only thing left of Pilosopong Tasyo's discourse on purgatory was the ironic (or sarcastic?) statement at the end that the idea of purgatory is a good and holy thing.

The preface shows where the bias is. The target audience of the translation is the students of Catholic schools.  And so creative subtraction is evident in a work that is barely a hundred years old.  Unfortunately, Maria Odulio de Guzman's translation remains of Rizal's novels is still used uncritically in most private and public schools. There is a need for better translations for high school use, but I doubt that there will be changes in the near future, especially in Catholic schools.

Bowdlerization, as well as creative addition and subtraction, is not a new thing. The only good thing about the more recent attempts is the existence of records. We can, if we are patient enough to compare translations, see where such addition and subtraction might take place. Furthermore, we have the recourse of seeing the original editions if we happen to be patient enough, and have the resources to visit the libraries that house the first few editions of the works that interest us.

Not so in scripture. The old manuscripts that we do have are copies of originals (called autographs) that are lost. We have to rely on the biblical scholars (with the requisite knowledge of the ancient languages)  who actually do examine the manuscripts, and write critical editions. Most bibles (the pocket sized one that most people own) have no trace of the labor of the translators, nor do they contain notes on the discrepancies between the different manuscripts and translations. It is thus a good idea to have as many translations at hand and to diligently compare them to see where bias might come in.  The better translations will contain an apparatus: these are footnotes where the discrepancies between existing manuscripts are noted, as well as alternative readings.

For example, the apparatus of the Jerusalem Bible, a catholic translation, contains a note on Isaiah 7: 14-- the verse is rendered "The Lord himself, therefore, will give you a sign. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel." the apparatus (the footnote) says: The Greek version (that is, the Septuagint) reads 'the virgin' being more explicit than the Hebrew (that is, the Masoretic text), which uses almah meaning either a young girl or a young, recently married woman.

Another example of the usefulness of the apparatus can be found in Mark, specifically the apparatus for Mark 16:9-20. A longish note says that the older manuscripts-- the codex Vaticanus and codex Sinaiticus -- do not contain these verses; instead a shorter ending is found. These verses are about the appearances of the risen Christ. The apparatus makes interesting reading, and rather than retyping it here, I recommend visiting a nearby library. My copy of the New Oxford Annotated Bible also has an apparatus, and it also notes this discrepancy between the extant manuscripts.

All this merely shows that one should never put too much trust in books; independent confirmation is always a good thing.  As Ronald Reagan would say:"Trust, but verify."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Commentaries and Wellhausen

I started rereading the Bible last month because I was asked by a student sectarian group about cosmology and black holes. Since I knew that this group believed that the Bible was inerrant (that the Bible was the last word on all issues, moral and scientific), I decided to prepare by reading the Bible again so that I  could better defend myself from the onslaught if it came.

And so I bought new copies of the Bible, with extensive annotation, so that I could point out the disagreements  between biblical scholars. An advantage of the annotation is how it shows that inerrancy  is indefensible, since a careful reading (the annotations themselves will sometimes point out contentious passages!) will show that parts of the Bible do not even agree with each other!

The sources I use, aside from the various Bible translations I own, include the 1611 and 1769 King James Versions, as well as various commentaries. I would have wanted a copy of the Jerome commentary (I first read selections while I was in high school), but was unable to obtain one. I was able to obtain the Oxford Bible Commentary, and I've been using it, as well as the annotations in the various Bibles I own, to see how various traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Evangelical, etc.) interpreted the Bible.

Th nice thing about having internet access is the ease with which you can look for additional sources. So I've also read the wikipedia entries and tracked down the cited references. I'm slogging through the literature, and I find it enjoyable seeing how the various views of scripture evolved.

Among the books I've discovered is Wellhausen's Prolegomena to the History of Israel. (Wellhausen's book --an English translation; the original is in German-- is available in Project Gutenberg.) I'm making my way through it because it provides reasons for why modern Biblical scholars view the Pentateuch as a composite work. Incidentally, it provides a good explanation for discrepancies within the Bible (why the genealogies do not match, why there are two creation accounts, why there are two accounts of Noah's entry into the ark, etc.) --- of course they shouldn't match, since the various sources evolved separately!

The idea of many authors is actually not original to Wellhausen; his main contribution was to synthesize the various hypotheses concerning the sources of the Pentateuch and provide a coherent whole; an explanation that eventually dominated 20th century biblical scholarship. Although there was much resistance from the traditionalists, it eventually became the standard explanation for the origin of the Pentateuch, so much so that the Wellhausen account is now taught in many seminaries and is included in the commentaries to the Pentateuch in Catholic Bibles, and some Protestant bibles as well.

One worrisome aspect of Biblical reading is its inexhaustibility. I've looked at the bibliographies used by the commentaries, and the references grow at an exponential rate. Aside from modern works, there are also many works by ancient scholars (for example, Philo of Alexandria, the historian Josephus) that would be good to read for a deeper understanding of the various religions that emerged from the Mosaic tradition. I expect that I'll never be an expert on it (I'm a physicist, not a biblical scholar!); I will, however, continue my reading for entertainment during weekends.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV with Apocrypha

After I paid the bills today, I went to National Bookstore to look at the discounted books. While looking through the shelves, I chanced upon The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed  New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha. Although I did not intend to buy anything,  I couldn't resist: it was marked down to half the original price; Amazon you was selling it for $39 while the copy I found was priced at $20. (It's still expensive if I take into account my meager salary but I have no other vices anyway) And so I bought it.

I'm very pleased with it because of the explanatory essays; among the topics discussed are textual criticism and how scholars decide which of reading to choose from the variety available in the original manuscripts. There are also essays on the historical background of the Bible as well as essays on the interpretation of the Bible.

One of the most important characteristics of a good scholarly bible is a set of footnotes containing variant readings; since the various manuscripts that were used as the basis of the translation often do not agree, it is always a good idea to show the variants. It is also more honest; one of the bad things about unfootnoted bibles is the tendency by readers to believe that there are no errors in transmission. Here, the Oxford Annotated Bible does not disappoint.

What convinced me to buy the book was the presence of the Apocrypha. The books Esdras 1 and 2, The Prayer of Mannaseh, Psalm 151, and 3- 4 Maccabees are present in the Orthodox canon but absent in the Catholic canon. So far, this Bible is the only one I own with these books included. At last, I can now satisfy my curiosity on what these books contain. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Oliver Heaviside

Instead of actually studying something useful (or marking papers-- there is a huge pile on my desk!), I spent the last two days reading Paul Nahin's Oliver Heaviside: The Life, Work and Times of an Electrical Genius. I've had the book on my virtual shelf, but kept postponing my reading in favor of fiction, as can be seen from my recent blog posts.

What really impressed me is the hard work he put into learning Maxwell's Theory of Electromagnetism, and that he was self-taught. Aside from never going to university, he was also handicapped by being part of the Victorian poor; to overcome the limitations of his class (and Victorian England was certainly terribly class-conscious) and earn the respect of the scientists of his time was a feat indeed. He was a self-taught mathematical physicist, and the mathematical physicist that he reminds me of is George Green.

I got interested in his biography after learning that he was one of the people who independently invented vector analysis (along with Josiah Williard Gibbs), and that he was one of the precursors of the modern theory of distributions. The Dirac delta function and the step function were used by Heaviside  long before these constructs were popularized by Paul Dirac.

I'm still not through with the reading, but what I've read so far has been interesting enough. I'll continue my reading tonight, after I do some paperwork.