31 December 2007

Challah! Hallah! Holla!

As I've written elsewhere, my sister is a baker. Yesterday, to fulfill some Church-charity-auction-related obligation, she was baking a couple loaves of Challah (not to be confused with Ciabatta, as I eventually found out). Dutifully typing away at the terrific kitchen counter where I do all my work when I'm at my parents' house, I paused to bug her a bit about this bread (whose name, as you probably know, is pronounced like the repeated word in the first line of John Legend's "Used to Love U") and get a feel for what things must be like at her school.

Kyle: So are people as obnoxious about Challah as I would be?
Rachel: What do you mean?
Kyle: Holla!
Rachel: Oh, yeah, totally.
Kyle: Good. I mean, that's not a word I usually use, but how do you turn that down?
Rachel: My friend has a shirt that has a picture of one and says Holla, spelled the other way. She says she only wears it at school because nobody gets it.

I'm so glad people are nerdily goofy whatever their discipline. For our part, we nuclear engineers tend to hang a lot of Onion science stories on our office walls. "Caltech Physicists Successfully Split The Bill" is my all-time favorite (except, of course, for this bit of non-science genius). More recently, "Scientists Ask Congress To Fund $50 Billion Science Thing" included a hilarious illustration that used drawings of a "science thing" many people in my group actually work on (the unwisely named and recently defunded International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor).

28 December 2007

Pryor Precedent

Great article in the Times today about Chris Rock and his upcoming New Year's show. I've been thinking about Rock lately in light of Dave Chappelle's mostly MIA status. It reminds me of an interesting Rock/Chappelle moment from when a good friend of mine was in UW-Madison's course Black Music and American Cultural History (which was created by the visionary Craig Werner, who taught the summer session of the class that I took, once told me I'd done a nice job on an especially tough midterm, is buddies with my friend Eric over at Streaming Media, and gave a killer introduction for Michael Eric Dyson when he spoke at Madison this fall [the gem, when mentioning that the intro to Dyson's new Know What I Mean? was written by "a guy you may have heard of" named Jay-Z: "That's a pretty good blurb. The best blurb I ever got was Michael Eric Dyson."]).

My friend tells me that someone in the class made the comment that Dave Chappelle seemed like "the new Richard Pryor. " The TA responded that Chris Rock "would be sorry to hear that," since that was a role he had aspired to. It made me realize that while I'm a fan of both of these heirs apparent, I know embarrassingly little about Pryor beyond some superficial stuff: that honky sketch with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak, the cameo in The Muppet Movie, the mention in "Chocolate City" (a song Werner introduced me to), and one of the documentaries--the one where his wife tells the story about the time she tried using the n-word.

As I was doing a little research on Pryor and Chappelle v. Rock, I learned that Pryor himself had actually answered the question (his ruling: Chappelle). I also learned a hell of a lot more, mostly from an excellent article by William Jelani Cobb at seeingblack.com (not to be confused with this Cobb, who I occasionally read). Cobb's distinction about Pryor and Chapelle's primary "concern[] with humanizing Black folk" is key to the debate, if there even is much of one given that perhaps the most appropriate judge has already ruled and, as Cobb points out, is sadly no longer available for comment.

27 December 2007

The Bohr Identity

I have a favorite physicist. While that puts me in a relatively small subset of the American population, I suspect that among members of that subset my choice is relatively common. After all, few physicists this side of Einstein and Newton are more well known than Niels Bohr, and even fewer of them have had a greater effect on physics.

The title of this blog, Contraria Sunt Complementa, is the motto on Bohr's coat of arms. It means "opposites are complementary." As is well documented by, among others, Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) and Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics), Bohr was fascinated by paradox. Take, for example, the dual nature of light and other electromagnetic radiation. One of the more fascinating mysteries that modern physicists had to sort out is the observation that light behaves sometimes as a wave (it reflects, refracts, interferes, etc.) and sometimes as a particle (it collides, billiard-ball-like, with electrons in a phenomenon known as Compton scattering. Because it obscures imaging and delivers unwanted dose to patients, Compton scattering is the bane of medical physicists everywhere, but it's OK by me because deriving the formula for its scattering angle helped get me though my modern physics qualifying exam for the doctoral program in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Engineering Physics.).

What made Bohr a visionary physicist was his readiness to see this dual nature not as a contradiction but, in the words of one physicist I know, as "two sides of the same coin." What made him an influential physicist, though (at least in my opinion), were two of his other traits that captured my interest: his insistence that the language with which we describe physics is as important as the physics itself and his warm and collegial relationships with his students, many of whom became great physicists themselves.

This is not a blog about Niels Bohr. In fact, as time passes, I'll probably talk less and less about him. But I hope his playful, collaborative, often interdisciplinary approach to a range of subjects (physics, writing, philosophy, and world affairs, to name a few) can inspire and serve as a model for much of what goes on here.

I'm not a first-time blogger, but it has been a while since "X-ray"ted Summer, the blog I wrote about my time as an x-ray repair man in New York, came to an end. In the mean time, I've read an awful lot of blogs. The most interesting ones, in my opinion, are those that refuse to treat their respective subjects as islands. I think Bohr, who agreed with Schiller that "Nur die Fuelle fuehrt zur Klarheit" ("only wholeness leads to clarity"), would appreciate that sentiment. Thus, with Bohr as my epistemological guide, I'll be offering up thoughts and analysis on the subjects that make me whole: science, engineering, teaching and tutoring, writing and editing. Maybe a little music and baseball for good measure. I hope you'll join me.