The Pain Behind Pride

Processing this past weekend’s attack has been difficult. When it happened, I was visiting Los Angeles to volunteer with their bi+ community at LA Pride. So much of my time there was glorious, especially meeting and working with such wonderful people, yet the weekend was tainted by bigotry and violence. I can’t fully shake feelings of despair, fear, and anger, but after a few days’ perspective, I’ve realized the emotion I feel most intensely is Pride.

It was slightly over a year ago that I first connected with bi+ folks in Portland, Oregon. I nervously walked into one of Bi Brigade’s monthly discussion groups at Q Center, but by the end of the meeting I knew these were my people. The evening’s only disappointment was learning that bisexuals had no contingent in Portland Pride that year. We kicked around possible remedies and exchanged email addresses before parting ways.1 Looking back, it’s hard to believe this happened so recently; I had no idea this simple act launched my journey as an organizer and an activist.

bi_brigade

Bi Brigade at Portland Pride 2015

Portland’s bi+ community has developed in countless ways since then and contributing to our growth has become central to my identity. Bi Brigade’s organizers are now family to me and learning the stories of our members warms my heart and expands my mind. I’ve also been fortunate to learn from interactions with experienced organizers from around the country.2 A number of these leaders reside in LA, but I had never met them in person. So when I learned of the bi+ activities planned for LA’s Pride Parade, I gave into the impulse to buy a ticket. This was a life changing decision.

After getting off the plane Thursday evening, I met with members of the Los Angeles Bi Task Force. They were celebrating their recently achieved status as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, only the sixth one in the country for bisexuals! I also spent time at LABTF’s booth at the festival and witnessed how they promote education, advocacy, and cultural enrichment for the bi+ community. They’re helping lead the charge against biphobia while exploring the intricacies and intersections of bisexual identities. Every single member of LABTF was happy to reciprocate my requests for advice and I’m extremely grateful to carry their lessons back to Portland.

Beginning Friday afternoon, the majority of my weekend was spent at amBi’s booth in the Pride festival. amBi is a social organization whose mission is to build bisexual community by hosting casual events where we can get together, have fun, and make friends; they’re doing a fantastic job and have over 16,000 members across five cities! I initially signed up for a couple shifts in the booth, but found myself reluctant to leave. We had a variety of activities set up and I – true to my own bi identity3 – dabbled in hosting all of them. There was a roulette wheel for winning awesome bisexual shwag, an “Ask a Bisexual” feature for the unfamiliar, and a bisexual kissing booth, as pictured below. Participating in each of these activities was a good time, but the charming, lovely, and dedicated new friends I worked alongside are the highlight of the experience.

kissing_booth

A small sample of our kissing shenanigans

I was having the time of my life before learning about the Orlando shooting. This horrible news was soon amplified when authorities apprehended a heavily armed man en route to LA Pride.4 But my initial reaction was, well, a non-reaction. Tears were a luxury I couldn’t afford. Setting up and breaking down the booth, decorating and dismantling the parade float, and entertaining festival attendees required my full attention and energy. The work was enjoyable, but demanding. Losing my momentum was simply out of the question, so I throttled and ignored all of the pain….

….until Monday morning, when I saw a news program and the floodgates opened; I broke down in tears and have been a leaky faucet ever since. It hurts to learn about the slaughter of innocent people, but we tend to anesthetize the pain when they are strangers. I couldn’t do that this time. A terrorist attacked the LGBTQ+ community because of our identity, because of whom we love.5 Worse yet, gay bars have traditionally served as a sanctuary for us, making this an even deeper violation of our sense of safety. On top of all that, it felt like LA Pride had narrowly dodged a similar stream of bullets.

I don’t find death itself particularly scary, but this massacre poured over me like a bucket of icy water, jarring me into the conscious understanding that there are people who feel our very existence warrants extermination. Reading my friends’ responses and recognizing our vulnerability ignited my feelings of fear and futility into anger: anger at those who would kill us, anger at how easily they can obtain weaponry, and anger at how little has been done to change that.

The only comfort I draw is from my community. We are strong and we are winning this war, inch by bloody inch. We won at Stonewall. We won in Lawrence v. Texas. We won in Obergefell v. Hodges. In greater and greater numbers, we’re coming out of the closets, circling the wagons, and taking to the streets. These were the only thoughts about bigotry I allowed myself while marching with amBi down Santa Monica Boulevard on Sunday morning because they are the most important truths during these difficult times. We stuck our necks out and walked tall: laughing, singing, dancing, twirling, kissing, and fighting against hatred.6

ambi_after

amBi’s marchers, post parade

After returning to Portland and getting a few hours of sleep, I headed over to help host Bi Bar, our local community’s monthly party at Crush, yearning to reconnect with my local family. Without exception, everyone showed up surrounded by some sort of personal, gloomy cloud. Yet as the night went on, I saw not a silver lining but a bright core shining through the darkness. Before bringing out the evening’s burlesque performers,7 Bi Brigade’s organizers took the stage and were introduced. I gazed into a crowd that was twice the size of any prior and felt the air grow thick, the love palpable. Every single person in that room was trembling with the same emotions I had been struggling to comprehend – a moment I won’t ever forget. 

bb_corgs_pride

Half of Bi Brigade’s organizers – it was so busy we forgot to take a picture until closing time

This preaching probably won’t reach far beyond the choir, but our numbers are swelling and our voices growing ever more refined and diverse. As we connect, our communities grow. Finding one another, we learn to love and to laugh again; “one” is no longer an isolated individual, but an integrated whole.

After last year’s Pride, I promised to become more active in the bi+ community. Today, I renew that vow and will continue doing all I can for us. I will not bow down to our oppressors. I will thrive in the joy brought by my brothers, sisters, and siblings elsewhere on the spectrum. I will mourn at Q Center’s vigil tonight for the recent attack on my family. And I will march again in Portland’s parade on Sunday with my fist and my head held high, filled with Pride in who I am and and who we are.

 

If you would like to connect with your communities, here are some places to start:

Bi Brigade – WebsiteFacebookMeetUp

Q Center – WebsiteFacebook

amBi LA – WebsiteFacebookMeetUp

LA Bi Task Force – WebsiteFacebook

 

Footnotes:

1. The Portland chapter of Sunday Assembly had extra space in their contingent and generously let us march with them in Portland Pride 2015.

2. Special thanks to Stacey Rice, Ian Lawrence, Faith Cheltenham, Rio Veradonir, Lynnette McFadzen, Paul Nocera, and the many others whom have offered support along the way.

3. For those hip to the language, I prefer the term pansexual, but generally go by bi (bye). For one, it’s annoying being asked “What’s a pansexual?” nearly every single time I come out. For another, it’s much easier to unite people under the label “bisexual” because it’s more well known. If using multiple labels seems odd or contradictory, please consider that neither one is known for “choosing a side.”

4. Later sources indicated that he wasn’t intending an attack, but was “merely” a gun enthusiast with three rifles and a five gallon bucket of Tannerite in his car, but we didn’t know that at the time.

5. This homophobic attack was ideologically driven, but it is infuriating to see backlash against the Muslim community. The tears I shed this week are the same ones I shed following Charleston, Colorado Springs, Charlie Hebdo, Oak Creek, and Umpqua Community College. Hate filled individuals – whether Christian, Muslim, atheist, or anything else – will always find ways to pervert their philosophy into justifying violence against the oppressed. Still, members of the peaceful majority in each of these communities must combat traditions of casual homophobia. For instance, “loving the sinner and hating the sin” is unacceptable (especially if you try to “bless my heart” afterwards!).

6. You can check out a video of amBi’s contingent here. Our segment lasts from 13:37-15:02 and you’ll catch a familiar face near its end.

7. Who were absolutely fabulous and left most of the audience desperately craving bananas, myself included.

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Love and Physics

It’s February 14th. Yuck.

Normally, I rally every possible inch of ire against this onslaught of monetized cardioid hogwash. But this year is different. This year I’m embracing the sappiness. This year, I’m celebrating my one and only, the light of my life, the eternal subject of my finitely human love – Physics!

I’ve compiled the slides from my most eloquent professions of love – err, lectures – from the past few years and split them into two holiday-themed, vomit-inducing categories:

atom_heart

Prove how nerdy you are for only $28.49 with this T-Shirt from spreadshirt.com!

 

Public Displays of Affection – These talks are heart-tipped arrows aimed at presenting the material clearly, accessibly, and passionately. They’re intended for a general audience and assume no prior knowledge of physics.

Intimate Letters of Love – These talks are more detailed and not recommended for cherry physicists. Math and science savvy undergraduates shouldn’t have many comprehension problems.

 

If there’s enough interest, I’ll post videos of myself delivering these lectures while binging on bargain chocolate and cheap ethanol.

choco_whiskey

L.A. Burdick’s Robert Burns Chocolates cost only $38.00 and are far nicer than whatever crap I’m having!

Stay sexy all you singles; this holiday is shit.

-Sean 

 

The PDA’s

The Physics of Interstellar (.pdf)

Christopher Nolan’s space epic, Interstellar, contains many truths that seem stranger than fiction. Both its storyline and speculative elements were carefully constructed to remain consistent with known physical laws, making Interstellar an excellent case study for writers. This talk draws from material by Kip Thorne, the film’s science advisor. It introduces real world cosmological phenomena, such as general relativity and black holes, to demonstrate how science can inform science fiction.

  • Writing Seminar at 9 Bridges, January 2016
  • Astronomy Club at University of Portland, October 2015

Does the Dark Matter Problem have a WIMPy Solution? (.pdf)

Dark matter is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in modern physics. Astronomers have observed that galaxies contain large amounts of mass completely exotic from the atomic matter that makes up our daily lives. Stranger still, this “dark” matter seems to make up a quarter of the universe! This talk discusses evidence for the existence of dark matter, presents Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as a possible solution, and explores some of the many ways scientists hunt for WIMPs. Should they exist, these elusive particles will unite the grandest cosmological scales with the tiniest iotas of existence.

  • Physics Seminar at University of Portland, February 2015
  • Biology Investigation Outreach Series at Portland State University, October 2014

The Love Letters

The “Why,” “What,” and “How?” of the Higgs Boson (.pdf)

For forty years, physicists wandered through an experimental desert, barren of the Higgs Boson. Known to the general public as “The God Particle” – and to physicists as “The Champagne Particle” – the Higgs’s discovery was announced in July 2012 and validated the Standard Model of Particle Physics. This talk’s first half tracks the historical and theoretical development of the Higgs mechanism. Its second half provides a quick tour of the Large Hadron Collider’s Compact Muon Solenoid, one of the two detector experiments responsible for this long awaited, yet groundbreaking discovery. The whole thing serves as a good follow up to Breakfast Physics: Hash Browns and Higgs Bosons.

  • Modern Physics at University of Portland, April 2015

Searching for Dark Matter with the CDMS Detector (.pdf)

Oh the memories, oh the humanity! This is the culmination of my two and a half years of graduate study. It serves as an advanced follow up to the previous dark matter presentation for those who are interested in learning more about the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search.

  • Master’s Defense at Texas A&M University, November 2013

 

For better or worse, I’ve put a lot of work into these slides. You’re welcome to share them for free, but shoot me an email for permission if you intend to somehow make a profit off of them.

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Breakfast Physics: Hash Browns and Higgs Bosons

I woke up hungover and needed aspirin, coffee, and greasy food. There were potatoes in the cabinet, so a hash brown was in order. I ground up the spuds, drenched them in olive oil, and lit the stove’s burner.

Drooling like someone rang a bell.

So close, so hungry….

The tricky part is timing the flip to fry both sides. There’s some magic moment when the bottom pieces crust together into a half-cooked hash brown, but potato shreds will fly everywhere if you flip before they’ve become cohesive. This destroys the structure and leaves you with fragments that won’t cook evenly.

The uncooked pile of potato has a symmetry reminiscent of the Taoist’s uncarved wood. It can end up as a well formed hash brown or as a Humpty Dumpty’d mess. But once it’s crusted or prematurely flipped, there’s no going back – you’re stuck with what you’ve got.

It took a lot of restraint to snap this picture before eating.

Got it all in one flip!

 

The 25 cent term for this phenomenon is Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking (SSB), which occurs when a system loses some of its internal symmetries. In the hash brown example, the symmetry consists of having more than one possible outcome. Yet at some point, this is broken and only one option remains.

Models incorporating SSB are used to describe many aspects of the physical world, ranging from superconducting materials to quantum chromodynamics to magnet.1 One of these models is the mechanism that gives particles mass, the Higgs Boson.

Before delving deeper into the physics, let’s re-examine the cooking equipment and my attempt to eat a balanced breakfast.

A lonely orange braves the elements to climb a mountain peak.

Precarious heights!

.... but ignore the pan handle and table's edge.

The Goldilocks Trench: Notice the symmetry of the orange’s position.

I’ve taken a bowl and placed it upside-down in a pan, creating a pan-bowl.2 Gravity’s pull makes it incredibly difficult to balance the orange on top of the pan-bowl. Any small disturbance will cause it to tumble to the low ground – the intersection of the bowl’s rim and the pan, highlighted below in green – which I call the Goldilocks Trench. This is another instance of SSB and the shape traced by the pan-bowl is the phenomenon’s signature pattern.

Originally, the orange is in a central, symmetric position, allowing it to move in any direction. But once it’s fallen into the Goldilocks Trench, the orange is constrained to roll in one of only two directions – clockwise or counterclockwise. As in the hash brown example, the fruit and pan-bowl system starts out with many options that disappear once the symmetry is broken.

The orange’s gravitational potential energy – which increases with its height – directly corresponds to its distance from the origin. If it’s near the center, the orange has an excess of gravitational energy and rolls outwards to lose it. Likewise, going too far out causes the same problem and the orange retreats inwards.3

A fallen fruit, bless its heart.

Stuck in the Goldilocks Trench.

But in the Goldilocks Trench, the distance from the center is juuuuuust right because the gravitational energy is minimized. In other words, the lowest height is paired with a unique distance from the center – the only stable combination.

The SSB of the fruit and pan-bowl is comparable to how the Higgs Boson gives particles mass. Instead of considering the gravitational potential of an orange, we’ll examine how strongly a particle interacts with the Higgs. The strength of this interaction determines the particle’s mass.

If the particle interacts strongly with the Higgs, it has a high mass; if it doesn’t, it has a low mass. To visualize this, let’s consider a loose analogy, bearing in mind that mass is a measure of how much effort it takes to cause an object to accelerate.

“My yacht purchase just went through!”
(source: top-img.com)

Imagine you’re getting coffee and across the table is either a friend or a narcissist.4 If you’re dining with a friend, it’s easy to hang around for a long conversation because you have rapport and bounce ideas off each other.

But the narcissist ignores your interests to rant about themselves. Though there’s plenty of talking, there’s little interaction, making it more likely that you’ll suddenly remember to “check the oven” or “feed the cats.”

In this example, you’re the Higgs Boson, your partner is a particle, and the quality of your conversation is how strongly the Higgs and the particle interact. It’s harder to part ways with your friend in the same way that it’s difficult to accelerate a particle that interacts strongly with the Higgs – that is, the particle is quite massive.

Each type of particle interacts with the Higgs in a characteristic manner – just like how our conversations vary based on our company. Physically, this is manifest through the dimensions of the pan-bowl.

The watermelon's pan-bowl didn't fit on the table.

A few other fruit and pan-bowl combos.
Scales are approximate due to limited cooking ware.

Nature alters the curves so that each type of particle has a unique pan-bowl configuration describing how strongly it interacts with the Higgs.5 Every Goldilocks Trench will be a different distance from the center, which uniquely defines the particle’s mass. The further it is from the center, the higher the mass.

This is also why SSB is essential for giving particles mass in the first place. Without its signature pan-bowl shape, particles could remain at the symmetric “position” for mass – zero. Breaking the symmetry enables interaction with the Higgs, driving particles to nonzero mass, just as heat and spatulas force the fate of fried potatoes.

This is what keeps the world from being too light a place! Speaking of that, it’s way too bright outside. But the hangover’s easing its grip; food and physics always help.



Footnotes

1. Yes, Insane Clown Posse, that’s how they work.

2.  TM

3.  Let’s pretend that my pan has much higher walls. Besides, this wouldn’t really be a physics discussion without bizarre approximations.

4.  They’re not mutually exclusive, but you should reevaluate your life if these categories’ Venn diagram resembles a single circle.

5.  This is our basic model, though it has some problems that require further testing (warning: maths and fancy words). Despite the need for fine tuning, many aspects won’t change too much – similar to how this banana and hat system still resembles our previous pan-bowl combos.

Good try banana, but it’s not quite the same.



Many thanks to Sean Downes, Autumn Rizzo, Dominic Collins, and Pops for feedback!

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Reflections on Pride 2015

bi_flag

Today I marched in Portland’s Pride Parade as a member of Bi Brigade. It was my first time marching and certainly won’t be the last! For once, I wasn’t just open about my orientation; I was proclaiming it from the city’s streets alongside my fellow queers and our allies. “Empowered” is a word that I never quite understood before this afternoon.

Invisibility has always been a problem for the bi community. Pew Research Center reports that there’s plenty of us, but people tend to pay no mind. There’s a number of factors causing this issue, but the biggest is that we’re too often content being the silent majority, leaving the world to wonder “Who are these people?”
That’s one of the reasons it took me so long to accept my orientation – I had no idea what it meant or what a bisexual “looked like.”*1 I found myself attracted to folks all along the gender and sex spectra, but squashed any desires that weren’t cast from some preconceived mold of how I was “supposed to feel.” Predictably, this led to years of internal strife.

I’ve been done with that nonsense for a while – now I’m out and marching, proud of my identity! Yet many problems persist after emigrating from the closet, as one of today’s onlookers demonstrated.

When Bi Brigade walked by, he waved his arms and called out “We love you bisexuals!” Out of gratitude for the support, I ran into the crowd and gave him a big hug. But as I left to rejoin the group, he said “Come back later! I’ll turn you gay!”

In the moment, it was difficult to process my anger. The interaction grew into a lonely cloud, casting its shadow on an otherwise glorious day. His poorly phrased flirtation struck a nerve: bisexual erasure.*2 He claimed the ability to rearrange my orientation on the very day set aside for celebrating it! There wasn’t time to verbalize this frustration, so I just replied “Good luck!” and hopped back into step.

The rest of the day was fantastic and filled with creative displays of rainbow and leather. I spent the afternoon relaxing at the festival with Bi Brigade’s other members and my thoughts wandered under the sun’s heavy gaze. I struggled to keep this “ally” off my mind, but his flippant remark kept resurfacing…. until I remembered the kid who jumped up and down as we approached, yelling “Yes! We exist! Those are my people! WE EXIST!”

That’s when I realized marching felt great because it wasn’t just for myself; it’s also for the bisexual community, especially its invisible members. Getting vocal and fighting for equality is essential for ourselves and for future generations. That’s what I’m choosing to take away from my first march and why I’m taking a more active role in growing our community. Care to join me?


bi_brigade

(Footnote 1: There is, of course, no answer because our community is so beautifully diverse. But I didn’t know that and am guessing many others are in a similar boat.)

(Footnote 2: Claiming that bisexuals don’t exist, as summarized by the phrases “it’s just a phase” and “get off the fence.” Erasure is disappointingly common, even within the queer community.)

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On Dementia and Death

Mommom died today. Or maybe it was ten years ago. In either case, today’s event feels more cathartic than sorrowful.

Alzheimer’s began to rot my grandmother’s brain when I was a kid. I have no concrete memories of her before the disease set in. There are a few vague hints. I recall a hazy, possibly composite scene, with my family crowded around her dining room table to eat. An aroma of macaroni and cheese filled the air. She’s full of gusto and has so much life.

My first full memory of her is a game of tic-tac-toe. The board was a large wooden coaster. A 3×3 grid was bored into its surface, each hole separated from the others by a painted blue #. We took turns claiming territory by planting yellow and green golf tees in the coaster. On her move, she placed a tee on top of one of mine, demanding “King me!” We all thought it was a great joke and laughed. She laughed too.

A few years later, Alzheimer’s had begun to ravage her mind. She picked up the habit of endlessly singing ““I’m bidin’ my time / ’cause that’s the kind of guy I’m.”” Never the whole song, just those two lines. Over and over, she was growing dizzy.

I was a knight for Halloween in sixth grade and donned a suit of armor forged from plastic and duct tape. My mom brought me to my grandmother’s and insisted that we take a picture together. She recoiled in horror, screaming “Get that cold iron away from me!”

Another time, my mother had to spend the night babysitting my grandmother. My mom woke in the morning and checked her room – it was empty! She searched the house in a panic, but to no avail. It was a gusty day, so it took her a while to hear my grandmother’s voice echoing from the outdoors. She was standing in the walkway, heatedly arguing with a flag billowing in the wind, “Who are you?! What are you doing here?!”

My favorite of my grandmother’s one liners resulted from dental surgery. The only way to get her to sit still was through anesthetics, including a large, local dose of Novocain. She regained awareness before sensation returned. Confused, she called out for her primary caretaker, my aunt: “Jane! JANE! Where’s my face?!”

It’s these goofy stories that hold a place in my heart. Kurt Vonnegut said that “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” Embracing the absurdity of my grandmother’s illness was the only way I could accept it. Plus, those were the days of my life when she could still function in some capacity.

About ten years ago, her mental state began to worsen at an accelerated rate. What was once a relatively innocuous – and occasionally humorous – case of dementia crumbled into vegetation. She lost the ability to leave her bed and shrunk down to Yoda’s size. She could mumble out short streams of syllables, but they didn’t add up into words. We could never tell how conscious she was.

I’m not exactly sure how long this process took, but it’s how she’s been embedded in my mind for the past decade. Until today, she just chugged along, even outliving several of her caretakers! And I’ve lost track of how many times she’s been on hospice. She kept going and going, our little Energizer bunny.

So today’s news wasn’t a surprise. The only shocking thing was how long she survived. It’s given me time to reflect on her life – and her death. It feels like this entry has been brewing in my mind for years, waiting for her spark to bring it to life.

My only sadness is that I never truly got to know her; she seems to exist as a collection of my emotions instead of as a person. All I can do is attempt to piece together her image from family’s recollections. Before I was born – and before she was afflicted by Alzheimer’s – my father described how “her keen and kindly eyes radiantly light up their whole neighborhood in her face from behind her horn-rimmed glasses. She is affectionate, sympathetic, and passionate. I think it is her passion which captivates most people.” I wish I had known her during those days because even my early, vague memories are of a lively and tenacious woman.

mommom

She still played a key role in my development. Her condition helped foster my interest in cognition and consciousness. What did she lose in her decay? It had to be something essential to being human. My curiosity partially arose as a coping mechanism. Learning about what happened to her helped make things less scary. It let me form a protective barrier of scientific jargon, to distance myself from the pain.

And as I grew older, I recognized how she influenced my views on death. For one, I’ve always known that it’s not the worst possible fate. There are far more terrifying ways for one’s self to get extinguished. Beyond that, death isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can bring release for the individual and for their loved ones. For this reason, I’ll never be able to oppose euthanasia.

Part of me has been waiting for this moment for years. I’m a secularist; I have no idea what lies behind the black curtain. Yet I can’t imagine anything being worse than being trapped in a body and brain that have ceased operations. With her passing, my fears have subsided somewhat. No prison is permanent, she’s found her freedom. Rest in peace, Mommom.

In memory of Marie Yeager
04/09/1916 – 02/04/2015

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Ocarina of Mind

Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?”

-Herman Melville

 

 

I. Mind and Brain

 

 

Ahab’s conundrum has echoed through human culture since the dawn of consciousness. Every single one of us must confront that eternal question: “What am I?” One possibility put forth by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett in their book, The Mind’s I, is that we are our minds.

 

Let’s define someone’s “mind” as their collection of thoughts and conscious faculties including memory, language, reason, fear, curiosity, belief, emotion, intuition, and sense of self. This list is far from exhaustive, but includes a few of the essential parts of a human mind. In short, a mind is the collection of self-interacting cognitive states and symbols in someone’s head. This is an unrigorous definition, but it’s good enough for our current discussion. Mostly, we want to be able to distinguish mind from brain.

 

“Brain” is a little bit easier to define. It’s the neural tissue forming the core of someone’s nervous system. It’s the neurons in their head and the glial cells keeping those neurons alive. Once again, this isn’t a revolutionary or comprehensive definition; we only need to establish mind and brain as nonidentical. To borrow an analogy from Dennett and Hofstadter, it can be helpful to think of a mind as software that is run by the brain’s hardware.

 

A strict interpretation of Cartesian Dualism holds that mind and brain are mutually exclusive, but this school of thought is dangerous. It’s more accurate to say that the two are subtly, yet intimately connected. On one hand, our abstract thoughts are manifest as chemical and electrical patterns. On the other, the connections between our neurons are forged based on the ideas we nurture. The physical and the mental depend on each other; trying to isolate the two is bound to lead to disaster.

 

Still, it can be convenient to sometimes talk of mind and to sometimes talk of brain. For example, let’s consider a person playing a video game, perhaps The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. If we’re focused on a more concrete process, like interpreting sensory input (e.g. translating the sound waves vibrating their eardrum or reading the photons absorbed by their eyes) it’s much easier to speak in terms of their brain. If we’re focused on a highly abstract process, like how they’re enjoying the plot and the characters, it makes more sense to discuss what’s going on in their mind.

 

II. Alright, so what’s an “Ocarina?”

 

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in 1998 by Nintendo Entertainment for the Nintendo 64 console. It’s a landmark game that pioneered mechanics that are now standard to the gaming industry. Ocarina was the first game to feature a system for “locking-on” to enemies during combat. It also introduced context sensitive buttons; for example, hitting the “A” button near a door would open the door, but hitting “A” near an enemy would launch an attack. Both of these developments allowed for far more versatile gameplay than ever before. In addition to these technological advances, the game’s story offers a unique context to ponder the philosophy of mind. The following paragraphs contain a few spoilers, but nothing too drastic.

 

In Ocarina, the player takes of control Link, a boy residing in the isolated Kokiri Forest in the kingdom of Hyrule. After waking from a nightmare, Link is summoned by the Great Deku Tree, the guardian of Kokiri. The arboreal spirit has been mortally cursed by a mysterious villain seeking to claim the forest’s Spiritual Stone, a gem with mystical powers. With his dying breath, the Great Deku Tree tells Link to seek out Princess Zelda and entrusts him with the Spiritual Stone.

 

Link travels to the capital and meets Zelda, who has been monitoring political affairs. She identifies the Great Deku Tree’s murderer as Ganondorf, a bandit king hailing from the arid Gerudo Valley. He is hunting down the Spiritual Stones because they are keys to the Temple of Time. Hidden inside the temple is the Triforce, a relic left by Hyrule’s creator goddesses that embodies the balance of courage, wisdom, and power. Ganondorf seeks the Triforce in an attempt to become a god, but the young heroes have other plans. Zelda continues spying on him while Link races to collect the remaining Spiritual Stones.

 

Link scours several dungeons, slays their vile overlords, and claims all the Spiritual Stones. While venturing back to the castle, he’s nearly run over by Zelda. She’s fleeing on horseback from Ganondorf, who has launched a coup! As her horse sprints into the distance, Zelda leaves behind the eponymous Ocarina of Time, a flute-like instrument that can channel the power of the Spiritual Stones into unlocking the Temple of Time.

 

With all of the keys in his possession, Link runs to the Temple of Time in search of the Triforce. Inside, he finds the legendary Master Sword, a weapon rumored to be the blade of evil’s bane. Link draws the Master Sword from its resting place and begins to drift into a deep slumber, à la Rip van Winkle. The evil king appears, reveals that he has manipulated Link into opening the temple, and claims the Triforce as his own.

 

Upon awakening, Link discovers that seven years’ time has passed; but for everyone else, time has been flowing normally. It turns out that the Temple of Time sealed him away until he was old enough to stand a chance against Ganondorf, who now rules with a bloody, iron fist. The dark lord has assassinated his rivals, razed entire cites, and unleashed monsters upon the land. In short, Hyrule has gone to hell in a hand basket.

 

But there’s one bit of good news: the time traveling is reversible. In order to save Hyrule, Link must battle Ganondorf in the past and in the future. By drawing or sheathing the Master Sword, Link’s mind can now seamlessly travel back and forth between his childhood and his adulthood in the blink of an eye. If we recall the definition of mind, we’ll see that this has some unusual implications.

 

III. UnLinking Mind and Brain

 

First, let’s consider how the time warp affects Link’s mind, then we look to its effects on his brain. Link’s consciousness evidently tracks the player’s perspective. If Link does some adventuring as an adult, then travels back in time, Link’s younger self will remember those “future” adventures. His mind seems to progress continuously, regardless of his place in time. Whether he is in the past or present, Link retains all the memories that the player does.

 

Link’s brain experiences things quite differently. It undeniably undergoes changes as it ages or rejuvenates during each time traveling session. The neural wiring of an adult’s brain is not the same as a child’s. In fact, his brain isn’t even the same size in the two time periods! Link’s mind effectively makes a discontinuous jump from one brain to another.

 

It seems that the game’s continuous mind mechanic exists to mesh the character’s experience with the player’s experiences. But this makes Link’s case no less interesting to study. From our own continuous minds and brains, we are able to immerse ourselves into Link’s continuous mind yet discontinuous brain with minimal suspension of disbelief. Perhaps the game had to be constructed this way to accommodate its players? Can our own minds only flow continuously?

 

I’d argue otherwise. Our encounters with mental non-continuity tend to be discomforting and can border on the surreal. One familiar example lies in the phenomenon of sleep. Our conscious mind, the tip of our mental iceberg, gives way to our underlying unconscious as we drift into the land of dreams. Sometimes we gradually make our way from this strange world back to reality, but a buzzing alarm can make this transition more of a jump.

 

Anterograde amnesia is a more terrifying case of mental discontinuity. It is a condition where patients are unable to form new memories following an event. Many people have experienced this after having a drink too many. Yet some suffer from chronic anterograde amnesia, as captured in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. In either case, losing these memories results in a break in the flow of consciousness.

 

I doubt the mind actually undergoes a full discontinuity in either of these examples. But it is still not possible for the dreamer or the amnesiac to fully recreate their train of thought. This means the the flow of consciousness has been broken to some degree. This is a bit creepy if we go back to Dennett and Hofstadter’s suggestion that we are our minds. If we experience a mental discontinuity, what happened to our self during that time?

 

Ocarina of Time subtly invokes some of the concepts on philosophy of mind that are explored more deeply in The Mind’s I. It clearly demonstrates one of the book’s assertions: that “Who am I?” must asked alongside “Who was I?” Even more fundamentally, we must continue to meditate on what exactly the self is. While we may never know who lifts Ahab’s arm, considering these questions might guide us to a better understanding.

 

IV. Further Works:

 

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Nintendo EAD

 

The Mind’s I – Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter

“Where Am I” – Daniel Dennett

“Where Was I” – David Hawley Sanford

“Minds, Brains, and Programs” – John Searle

“An Unfortunate Dualist” – Raymond Smullyan

 

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid – Douglass Hofstadter

 

The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am – Luke Cuddy

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Why I am Leaving Graduate School

Forward

I originally wrote this about midway through August 2013. I wasn’t quite sure that leaving graduate school was the right decision until I experienced that sleepless night when I spewed this out. Quite a few things have changed between writing and publishing, but I’m going to leave the original text in as pure a form as possible. I hope that the rawness of the writing makes up for the naivety. -SAY 12/27/2013

Introduction

Some students hate graduate school. I am not one of them. Grad school is the place to learn how to do scientific research. You don’t have distractions like “off-duty hours” or money. I’m saying that without sarcasm or bitterness; it’s simply the truth. If you are absolutely sure that research is what you want to do with your life, then grad school may be the place for you.

I’ve realized over the past few weeks that research is not all that I want to do in life. I came to this epiphany while teaching “Modern Physics for Engineers.” I have realized that my potential as an educator exceeds my potential as a researcher. This is directly related to the fact that I’m happier when teaching than I am when doing research.

I have two main motivations behind making this post. The first is so that I have all of this information organized and available for when people inevitably ask me why I am leaving. The other is that I have a solid record of my thoughts and reasons in case I ever need a reminder for having made this choice. First, I will address what I stand to lose in leaving grad school, then I will go into all that I have to gain.

Reasons for Staying in Graduate School

This decision was not an easy one to make. Several factors have played a vital role in guiding me towards and nurturing me through grad school. In particular, I feel like I have been held here by a sense of obligation, a desire to teach at a high level, an ego that is too easily bruised, and, most importantly, the strength of the scientific community. I’d like to touch on each of these topics and how they’ve played a role in my life over the past few years.

Obligation

I must open this segment by praising my advisor, Dr. David Toback. I came to Texas A&M University specifically to study under Dave, whom I had first worked for during the summer of 2009. He has been a nurturing mentor, especially over these past two years. When I told Dave about my decision to leave, he was completely understanding and has done everything in his power to help me find my path. I’m certain that I would not have made it this far without Dave’s help and I am extremely grateful to him.

In choosing to leave graduate school, I feel like I am abandoning Dave and the rest of my colleagues, particularly George and Teja. All of our plans had assumed that I would be around for a long time; I feel horrible throwing a stick into their wheels. Beyond the guilt, I also feel as though I am shirking my duties. I am sorry that they must deal with some of the repercussions of my decision, but I honestly feel that I have made the right choice. I am also confident that my absence from the workplace will not hinder any of their future successes.

Desire to Teach

Naturally, this point is also on my list of reasons to leave grad school. If you had talked to me a few months ago, I would have told you that my life goal was to be a professor at a small liberal arts school. If you had asked me more than a few months ago, I would have been too scared to answer. I didn’t want to risk looking like an idiot if things didn’t pan out “properly.”

Yet the probability of ending up at this city-on-a-hill seems to shrink with each new piece of literature I read. Amidst a glut of Ph.D’s, a dearth of tenure-track positions, and an uncertain future for liberal arts schools as a whole, dropping out of the rat race seems like a better option.

And I do not hesitate to use the phrase “rat race.” The number of hoops that a candidate must jump through to get an academic position is outrageous. The reward for these efforts is the stress of scrambling for tenure. Even then, the job security of successfully achieving tenure sounds nice, but chasing grants to stay relevant and to support students doesn’t.

Some of you may say, “Well there’s no chance of making it if you give up!” Sometimes this advice is sound. When a person is working at the thing that he loves best, these words are what he needs to hear when he stumbles on hard times. A position as a professor at a liberal arts school still sounds like a kick ass job, but the price I’d have to pay to get (and to stay) there is too prohibitive. The people who belong in these positions are the ones who do not view all of these intermediary steps as hoops to jump through.

Pride

This is easily the hardest point to write about; it involves bearing my darker side to the world. I think, however, that openness and honesty here are very important. For so much of my life, I was unable to willingly show any kind of weakness. It’s still something that I’m not comfortable doing. Fighting that paralyzing fear in such a personal, yet public, manner is crucial to my growth as a person.

I’m not sure how to say this without coming off as a pompous ass, but I am an intelligent person. I have always taken a sense of pride in my acumen and it has played a central role in forming my identity. I am ashamed to say that in the past I often drew a sense of superiority from my intellect. While I cannot currently claim to be free of this failing, I have begun to stare down the beast in an attempt to overcome my arrogance. One of my most important lessons in grad school was on humility, and it did not come easily.

On the other hand, one of the reasons I have been reluctant to leave is because part of me viewed a Ph.D as external validation of my intelligence. This is the absolute worst reason to be in grad school! Any psychiatrist will tell you that seeking external validations is not healthy. It gets even worse when you pair this mindset with the Impostor Syndrome that plagues many grad students, myself included. My solution is to instead focus on projects that leave me feeling fulfilled.

It’s true, I’m still afraid that in the future I might get looked down upon for not having completed my Ph.D. I’m choosing to use that fear as motivation to ensure I live life on my own terms and with no regrets. I don’t think I can fully shake my pride, but maybe I can harness it to make the world a better place. At the very least, publicly confessing the existence of this “dark passenger” has helped to ease its grip on me.

Community

The scientific community is by far the biggest reason I want to stay in grad school. Scientists are the purest of nerds, which makes them absolutely wonderful people to be around! It’s a diverse culture whose members hail from all over the world. They’re united by their curiosity, their love of nature, and their nearly reflexive asking of “Why?” If you’re looking for an interesting person to grab a beer with, find a scientist. If you ask the right questions, you’re in for an exhilarating conversation!

While research will no longer be my primary focus, I don’t think I’ll be completely removed from the scientific community. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I couldn’t escape if I tried! I think that the best way that I can contribute to the advancement of human knowledge is by throwing a rope and helping others scale the cliffs that I have already climbed. Quite frankly, the view is marvelous. The world needs guides like Bill Nye, as much as it needs explorers like Richard Feynman. I feel that I am more cut out for the former role.

Reasons for Leaving

Those arguments form the core of my motivations for staying in grad school. I want to juxtapose the reasons to stay against the reasons to leave in an effort to expose the formers’ inadequacy. The previous section focused on what I stood to lose; this next one shall explore all that I stand to gain. The key points are teaching experience, time for other projects, humanitarianism, and travel.

Teaching Experience

Teaching is a word that carries some dangerous connotations. It’s too aggressive a verb for my taste. It seems to imply a process whereby I directly transfer my knowledge to a student, as if by magic. This couldn’t be further off the mark. Learning only happens when a receptive mind is actively engaged in the material. This is what makes it difficult to be an effective teacher. I must first pique the students’ curiosity, then aid them on their path to knowledge. Luckily, the universe is an exceptionally interesting place, which makes things a bit easier.

Perhaps that is the heart of what I do. I spread the message that the universe is an exciting, terrifying, wonderful place. What’s even more amazing is that humans, minuscule collections of carbon based molecules, have the tools to explore a world that is so mysterious and unusual. Think about that for a moment. We’re pretty damned impressive specks of dust.

So, I guess that it’s pretty apparent that I’m into this whole “education” thing. Unfortunately, if I stay in grad school (and follow it with a post doc, which is effectively a prerequisite for a tenure track position) my opportunities to teach will be severely hindered for the next several years. Instead, I would be focusing on becoming a researcher.

Meg Jay has an excellent talk about how the twenties are such important years for us to establish ourselves. They are arguably our most productive years and when we are most likely to produce our best work. Therefore, it’s important for me to figure out who I want to become and strive toward that goal with all my heart. In these past few paragraphs set some clear criteria for who I want to become. Unfortunately, I don’t think staying in grad school will give me the opportunity, time, or experience needed to become a world class educator.

Other Projects

Physics will always be my first love and true passion. It is deeply ingrained into my being and I can guarantee that I will be miserable if I end up in a field where physics plays no role in my life. While it is my favorite subject, it is not the only thing in my life. Leaving grad school will free me up to pursue my other interests as well.

Every time I engaged in a leisure activity during grad school, I felt lazy. Each bit of brainpower that was not devoted to my research made me feel like a charlatan. “Who the hell am I to have the gall to dedicate precious willpower towards something that isn’t my research?” I understand that no one expected me to maintain literally 100% focus on my work, but this was a self imposed mindset. Yet, there are so many other activities that are essential to making me a complete person.

This blog is the most obvious example. Even though I have yet to make many entries, these current musings have been therapeutic, and I plan to continue.

Another hobby that I have picked up, at long last, is playing the guitar. In actuality, I view this as less of a new hobby and more as an extension of my love of music. I’m no Tobias Funke – I don’t expect to be a star musician, but grabbing the old six string is a always good way to take a load off. At the moment, I’m very much a beginner and many months of practice await me before the guitar really opens up as a form of self expression.

Finally, I don’t want to overlook the potential for other side projects. Whatever ideas lie in the future are exciting and I want to be able to devote the time needed to convert them into something substantive. I have been regrettably bad at this in the past. Also, getting back into good shape would be lovely. Between ultimate and bicycling, maybe I’ll actually become physically healthy again.

Helping Others

One of the worst things about grad school is how selfish I feel. I do believe that pure research is essential and contributes to the betterment of humanity. But I don’t think that I could tell a starving child that looking for dark matter is more important than her dinner.

One thing that my parents always stressed is how important it is to help others. I am very grateful to them for that. While I’m not going to completely pull roots and devote my life to charity, I am not satisfied with my current the impact on the world. Through teaching, I hope to make a difference in students’ lives. As these young adults mature, I hope that my influence contributes to the activation energy required for them to lead fulfilling lives and that they go on to make the world a better place.

Travel

I need to escape Texas as quickly as possible. Nearly all of my experience with the state is College Station, but I feel that its inhabitants have given me a reasonable cross section of Texan culture. Nearly all of the individual Texans that I know are phenomenal people and I am honored to count them as friends.

But still, the culture here is toxic to me. It embodies everything that I am not. I do not regret having lived in Texas for these past two years. I learned a lot of things that I would not have been forced to confront otherwise. A figurative (and occasionally literal) slap in face is often just what I need to wake up from my own ignorance. My time here has done much to help me understand and empathize with more conservative world-views, even if I do not agree with them on most topics. I am grateful for these lessons, however, I must move on for the sake of my mental well being and for a chance to learn even more.

I want to live somewhere new. California and the Pacific Northwest are especially beguiling. Europe’s siren call is also hard to resist. At the moment, I don’t want to settle down anywhere, although I might change my mind once I move. I want to have the opportunity to travel the world over the next few years and experience a variety of cultures. I am a physics teacher, a job which I hope will open up employment opportunities wherever I go.

At the moment, I am applying to jobs. The near future most likely involves teaching at a junior/community college. This will get me a steady (if small) income, teaching experience, and the ability to pull roots when I feel the wanderlust calling again. While the Earth is just a tiny blue dot in the Milky Way, it’s still a damn interesting place and I want to see as much of it as I can while I still have that luxury.

Conclusion

In his wonderful book, “How to Read Literature like a Professor,” Thomas C. Foster discusses the archetypal quest story, a story which we all feel like we are living out daily. He writes, “The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge.” I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps it’s due to my fascination with sci-fi and video games, but I try to embrace my life as a journey. Leaving grad school will open up my options to look both outwards and inwards.

I have no idea what lies ahead, but that’s part of what makes the adventure so exciting! For those of you who have not seen me in a while, I will not be the same person you knew when our paths next cross. I can only make guesses about whom you’ll encounter, but, with any luck, he’ll be a kinder, wiser version of myself. Until then, happy trails!

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