How To Not Be Overly Organized


Is it possible to be too organized? Physics offers us an answer: it explains that the polhode rolls without slipping over the herpolhode. This sounds dirty. It really has something to do with the rotation of rigid bodies as they begin their nutation. This makes it sound unbelievably filthy. Physics reports now that it misheard the question and apologizes fiercely.

Now that we ask physics again, where it knows its mother is listening, we have a better answer. It would be too organized if all the mass and energy of the universe were piled into a single spot of extraordinarily high, by which we mean low, entropy, causing the expansion of space to restart with a new Big Bang and the formation of a different universe with physics that might be substantially different from those we know. Even the person who’s so orderly as to have a ten-point checklist for connecting the garden hose would agree this is too organized, given how long it would take for a new universe to expand and cool enough to support stars, life, limited-edition holiday-flavor candy corn, and the part of town where they’re always having ukulele festivals.

Most of us stop before that point anyway, because we are stymied by questions such as: does it count as a pair of socks if they are noticeably not alike, but they are each the only one of their kind, and you have two of them? This is the problem I posed to my advanced physics lab partner in college, when he said he was starting to organize his dorm room by dividing it into “pair of socks” and “not a pair of socks”. His answer was to look at me with sad despair. His dorm-room organization project ended in failure, and we were unable to show that the Inverse Zeeman Effect ever happened.

The Inverse Zeeman Effect is a physics thing you look for in advanced physics labs and it has nothing to do with polhodes as far as I know. It’s named for the Dutch physicist Pieter Zeeman, who was such the life of the party he was known in every physics lab as Pieter “The Man” Zeeman, only in Dutch. Eventually he got a sinecure working for the water-reclamation agency. This allowed him to be Pieter “Zie Man” Zeeman of the Zeiderzeewerken. For putting up with this all his life they gave him a Nobel Prize and asked him to say “sinecure” with a Dutch accent.

Even we who are not Nobel Prize-winning Dutch physicists find natural limits to organization. Most things enjoy a natural resting spot which doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be consistent. Which is why, in a boring anecdote I am not making up, I kept my toothpaste in the refrigerator for about four years when I was living in Singapore. It was probably an accident at first. But then it kept happening, and before you knew it, if somehow there were toothpaste in a more traditionally sensible place in my apartment, such as the bathroom, I’d never know it. Clearly the natural habitat of Singaporean toothpaste was in the refrigerator. I should have left a note for whoever got my apartment after I moved out. But if I had left one, would they have believed me? What might they have said about it? “This person writes too small to be legible”, most likely. I’ve left notes for people before.

The trouble is that organizing tries to put things where it makes sense for them to be, which is rarely were they want to be. The displaced things respond by going missing altogether. Who among us hasn’t tidied the office supplies on their desk and discovered the stapler can’t be found? Or organized the stuff in their medicine cabinet to find that not only is their toothpaste gone but there’s no evidence that they’ve ever had toothpaste? To tidy up the house so well that the guest room goes completely missing and there’s just a vacant spot on the wall is an unusual event. But it’s not unprecedented.

If there is one important thing to consider, it’s this: the Dutch have a municipality named “Urk”. It’s a former island, as the Zuiderzee’s been reclaimed all around it. Now it’s geographically part of the Noordoostpolder, which sounds like they’re doing physics over there. Somebody look into that. After knocking.

Statistics Saturday: Counting On The Splendid Bowl


If current trends continue, then in the year … … there will have been as many Splendid Bowls as there are or were:
2020 Faces and vertices of the medial rhombic triacontahedron
2026 Days in January and February (non-bissextile years)
2026 Minimum number of games in the National Hockey League postseason (per rules in effect for 2015)
2027 Days in January and February (leap years)
2028 Counties in New York State
2031 Years between a Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania groundhog’s first being recorded to predict the weather and the predictive groundhog’s receiving the name “Phil” [1]
2034 Secretaries of State of the United States (as of 2015)
2044 Inches of height of Michael Jordan
2048 Games in a regular National Basketball Association season (as of 2015)
2049 Episodes of the original Star Trek
2054 International Astronomical Union-recognized constellations
2071 Maximum number of games in the National Hockey League postseason (per rules in effect for 2015)
2173 Recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (as of January 2015)
2331 Days in the year
2686 Species of Pokemon revealed as of 2015
9886 Elements of the sporadic Mathieu group M11

1: Wikipedia’s description is very breezy and chatty, causing me to doubt that the topic has been the subject of credible historical inquiry.

Higgs Boson Wins Nobel Prize


There’s an engaging little spoof over at the Scientific American that claims the Nobel Prize in Physics is going to the Higgs boson rather than to any of the many, many people who deserve some attention and reward for that. It’s a little science-y but I think makes all the context clear enough. From Ashutosh Jogalekar’s report, so you can judge if you want to read the whole thing:

Since interviews with the particle could not be held for obvious reasons, the media was instead shown a graph displaying a bump supposed to indicate its existence. A member of CERN’s PR division also wore a large, squishy Higgs costume, doing his best to mimic the behavior of the fleeting particle as he whizzed from one end of the room to another, hid and emerged from behind a curtain and breathlessly answered questions about gauge symmetry and vacuum fluctuations.

%d bloggers like this: