How Much Do You Really Know?

We gather here to be together

We gather because of two high values - Love and Justice

Love in our hearts leads to happiness

Love in our minds leads to inclusion

Love in our hands leads to justice

In this place and by the light, let us grow in love

Let have the courage to love enough to create joy

To create community

And to build a more just world

A world that, itself, will be ever more nurturing of love






Wisdom - Thomas merton

I studied it and it taught me nothing.
I learned it and soon forgot everything else:
Having forgotten, I was burdened with knowledge–
The insupportable knowledge of nothing.

How sweet my life woud be, if I were wise!
Wisdom is well known
When it is no longer seen or thought of.
Only then is understanding bearable.


There is the leisurely one (from The Shodoka) 
English version by Robert Aitken

There is the leisurely one,
Walking the Tao, beyond philosophy,
Not avoiding fantasy, not seeking truth.
The real nature of ignorance is the Buddha-nature itself;
The empty delusory body is the very body of the Dharma.


A Small Porch in the Woods 

To care for what we know requires
care for what we don't, the world's lives
dark in the soil, dark in the dark.
Forbearance is the first care we give
to what we do not know. We live
by lives we don't intend, lives
that exceed our thoughts and needs, outlast
our designs, staying by passing through,
surviving again and again the risky passages
from ice to warmth, dark to light.
Rightness of scale is our second care:
the willingness to think and work
within the limits of our competence
to do no permanent wrong to anything
of permanent worth to the earth's life,
known or unknown, now or ever, never
destroying by knowledge, unknowingly,
what we do not know, so that the world
in its mystery, the known unknown world,
will live and thrive while we live.

~ Wendell Berry ~


 Donald Rumsfeld:

As we know, 
There are known knowns. 
There are things we know we know. 
We also know
There are known unknowns. 
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns, 
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

Nano-Knowledge by Heather McHugh
There, a little right
of Ursus Major, is
the Milky Way:
a man can point it out,
the biggest billionfold of all
predicaments he's in:
his planet's street address.

What gives? What looks
a stripe a hundred million
miles away from here

is where we live.


Let's keep it clear. The Northern Lights
are not the North Star. Being but
a blur, they cannot reassure us.
They keep moving - I think far
too easily. September spills

some glimmers of
the boreals to come:
they're modest pools
of horizontal haze, where later

they'll appear as foldings in the vertical,
a work of curtains, throbbing dim
or bright. (One wonders at
one's eyes.) The very sight
will angle off in glances or in shoots
of something brilliant, something

bigger than we know, its hints uncatchable
in shifts of mind ... So there

it is again, the mind, with its
old bluster, its self-centered
question: what

is dimming, what is bright?
The spirit sinks and swells, which cannot tell
itself from any little luster.


Message by Scott Sampson

We've been discussing science these past few months. For much of history, nature has presented great mysteries to us. But a great deal has been discovered, especially since the 20th century. 

So how much do we know? It turns out quite a lot. Maybe nature is not so mysterious anymore?  

To illustrate this, I'll talk to you about physics, specifically elementary particle physics. 
Some of you may recall the news reports in the last few years: a particle called the Higgs Boson was finally detected by CERNs LHC in Genevea, a 27km particle accelerator that smashes protons together with unprecedented energy. The LHC is probably the largest most complex machine ever built.

The Higgs Bosons is nothing less than the mechanism physicists use to explain the existence of mass in the universe. (otherwise everything would be massless like light). But this detection, confirmation of theory, is just the latest chapter in a very long and successful story of discover.

This story started over 400 years ago when discoverers such as Galileo described falling bodies on this Earth, and Kepler found rules to describe the motion of planets and stars. The physical world followed rules based on mathematical equations.

Then a more profound advance occurred - Isaac Newton developed his 3 laws of motion and the law of Gravity. He used deeper principles - conservation rules, relativity, symmetry - which in more modern forms still guide physicists today.

Gravity explained how things fall on this Earth. But remarkably, the very same law explained the motion of planets and stars. Suddenly the laws of heaven and earth were one the same. Humankind could look up at the sky without such mystery anymore. It was a huge paradigm shift. All western thinking, not just in science but also in philosophy, art and literature, was impacted. 

Another great unification of ideas would happen in the 19th century. The great Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell developed his theory of electromagnetism. He showed electricity, magnetism, and light are just separate manifestations of the same phenomenon. Light, for example, is just the propagation of electromagnetic waves. And intriguingly, the theory set a maximum speed in the universe - the speed of light.

So we have 2 theories - Newton's Mechanics and Maxwell's electromagnetism to describe the physical world. 
But despite these advances, much remained unexplained. At the start of the 20th century, humans could look around and not understand many basic things:

  • chemistry: sure the periodic table might describe reactions, but the chemical bonds (formed by electrons) did not follow known physical laws
  • look up at the sun: where did all that energy come from?
  • Light is a wave (like sound or ocean waves): how does it travel in a vacuum?
  • Most disturbing, a theoretical contradiction: maxwell sets light as a universal speed limit, Newton's Mechanics had no such constraint.

In the early decades of the 20th century, physicsts would tackle these problems, and solve all of them.
First came Einstein, think of him as the last great classical physicist. 
He solved the speed of light contradiction between Newton and Maxwell, how? space is relative - I move toward you, it looks just like you move toward me.
Einstein's insight was time is also relative: a fast moving clock appears to tick more slowly to the stationary observer. Time dilation. (how does that solve the problem? ask me afterward if not obvious)

Einstein's reasoning brought together space and time, and also matter and energy: E=MC^2, matter can turn into energy .
Now we could explain the heat of the sun, and horribly, in their unstoppable drive not only for theoretical but also experimental advancement, physicists would learn to ignite the power of the sun on this earth and create the weapons that could destroy us all.

But much of this is still classical physics. The more radical change came with the development of modern physics - Quantum Mechanics. 

The idea: think of a particle as a spinning top - pointing up or pointing down. You measure it - and see down. 
What state was it in before you measured? Neither! The question has no meaning! you can only talk about probabilities. 

It is the Schrodinger cat metaphor - stick the cat in the poison box, is it alive or dead? There no answer until you open the box (the cat really being a particle of course). More strange phenomenon - Heisenberg's uncertainty principle wave particle duality, pair production - something can appear from nothing then vanish again, as long as you are not looking. This breaks all classical laws.

Let's be clear - quantum mechanics is not a mathematical construct to describe some experimental data, it is a fundamental property of nature. The Newtonian world of precise measurement and well defined objects we see day-to-day is in some sense an illusion caused by large scale.

In the 20th century physicists combined relativity and quantum mehcanics, pushed experiments to higher and higher energy and produced the standard model of particle physics: 3 fundamental forces, strong, weak and electromagnetic in a single framework with the Higgs Boson to explain mass. 

Only gravity, the 4th force, sits separately. It is an extraordinary successful theory to explain all particle physics and astrophysics experiments. 

So what mysteries remain? What phenomena do we see that defy explanation, that don't fit the theory? 

The disappointing answer : nothing so far, absolutely nothing. From the highest energy collisions at CERN to the most energetic cosmic rays, it all fits the theory.

Don't get me wrong - the standard model is not the final theory. It has some theoretical issues, and the elephant in the room - unification with gravity which must occur at some much greater energy - is still missing. 

So while great discoveries still remain out there, let's appreicate what has been accomplished. we should be in awe of nature's mysteries, but can also admire humankind's extraordinary ability to unravel those mysteries through experiment and theory.

Why am I talking about this? I describe this not as an observer but as a former participant in this story of discovery. My small role? My PhD thesis was to examine the electroweak force at previously unmeasured energy levels to see if the Standard Model held true - and naturally the theory held.

So you might ask: how does a person become a physicist? Do you have to be smart or something?

A recent article in the Guardian argued that there is no such thing as a gifted child. Most unusual acheivers are unexceptional in childhood. They only excelled later when something captured their curiosity.

While I'm not exceptional - I was pretty average as particle physicists go - I do see a similar pattern in my own life. I was not particularly good in school as a child. But late in high school I saw Newton's laws - I did not understand them but I wanted to, I was curious. I did not do physics because it was easy for me, I did it because it was hard.

At university and in graduate school, I studied, it was difficult, I often risked failure, and bad failures happened a few times, it was difficult and it hurt (because it was my life's work) but then I went at it again. 

At times in the course of my education did I noticed others whose minds seemed a bit quicker than mine, but when they hit that point risking failure, they moved on, chose other things. Which is fine, not everyone should be a physicist after all. But it does indicate innate intelligence does not have so much to do with it.

That Guardian article has a great quote from Einstein: '“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.' In over a decade of doing physics, I learned to stay with problems a very long time.

So I did physics. What was the impact on me, as a person? I have some mixed feelings. It gave me skills, intellect, but also humility, and opportunity to find purpose and deep meaning in work. However as a physicist I did no learn as much about people as would have been healthy I think.
I look at teachers, social workers, medical carers and see their human skills and empathy. Don't get me wrong - science and discovery is a glorious pursuit critical to the perpetuation of our species, but it is also in certain ways a selfish pursuit - at times encouraging one to care more about scientific research than one's fellow human being. 

And in the end I could not keep doing it - the requirement to pursue this one topic, all day, everyday, to the exclusion of everything else was too much. And for what? A tenure track professorship that probably does not exist anyway?
So like many others now I do something else - quantitative finance. Surprisingly it is mathetical enough to keep my physics brain stimulated, and I learn about things like the financial system and central banks, that's ok. .

But Although I am no longer in the field, I will always be defined by having been a physicist, the deep exploration of ideas, the insatiatble curiosity and drive to discover at all cost.
I remember as a young graduate student sitting in a cafe near Columbia university, a few blocks from my physics building, famous for it's basement where Enrico Fermi started the first nuclear fission experiments that lead to the atomic bomb. I sat in that cafe doing some Quantum Mechanics problems with pencil and paper. At a certain point I realised I was doing the problem without consulting a textbook or getting help from the professor - the equations were all in my mind. I don't have much formal music training, but I imagine moments like these are like when a classically trained pianist, after years of practice, hits all the notes just right - as I sat there manipulating the equations so the photons collapsed from their probability distributions into their measured quantum mechanical eigenstates, I was seeing deeply into nature with my mind, it was something of beauty, something of truth.