Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity

9780735213920When I borrowed this book (from the library), my purpose/intention was to try to see whether I may learn something about the theory of loop quantum gravity.  At the end, though I don’t feel that I have grasped too substantially about the theory of loop quantum gravity, the author does seem to make the readers feel very straightforward to accept that the space at the smallest level is quantized (as quanta of gravity).  It seems to be the most natural thing in the world.  “Of course !” one may exhale in one’s mind.  Probably, only the part that the space as a sort of substratum or backdrop has disappeared is slightly more difficult to thoroughly comprehend.

The other thing that the readers would learn well from this book is that time doesn’t exist at the fundamental level. Because we never measure time in reality but only other physical variables such as how many beats for each oscillation or how many ticks of a stopwatch, and their relationship. In particular, time does not exist in the Wheeler-DeWitt equation, the solutions of which has given rise to “loops” — first found by the famous Lee Smolin together and Ted Jacobson, p.159. Which was the beginning of loop quantum gravity. In p.249-252, the author has explained quite well about “Thermal Time” by comparing time to heat as kind of an average of many variables. Time, like heat, doesn’t exist at the most fundamental level but it exists as a useful and convenient variable. In fact, the entire Chapter 12, “Information”, including “Thermal Time”, has done a good job in explaining the information theory, probably not because I have read about this subject quite a number of times.

Another distinct and interesting “tidbit” that I’ve learnt from this book is that black hole or the universe would explode or bounce back (Big Bounce) if they get squashed or contract to (presumably approaching) the level of the quanta of space/gravity due to quantum repulsion. The quantum repulsion is not explained clearly (eg. in p.207-208) as “All of this is still at an exploratory stage” (1st line of p.209). Nevertheless, it’s said that when the space is very very small, the universe is just “spread-out cloud of probabilities in which time and space wildly fluctuate” (3rd-4th lines of p.208). ( As a side note, the author still uses the word “time” here though time should not exist at the fundamental level. Maybe, the author is just using an average sense of “time” as it’s what most readers are familiar with anyway ? Or, even the author himself can’t get rid of the old habit of thinking of time ?! This is just one of the places where I might have been confused or bewildered after the idea of “time doesn’t exist” was so ingrained in my brain. ) It seems to me that these loop theorists must like some kinds of cyclic models of the Universe, contracting and bouncing back. But what if the Universe keeps expanding and even in an accelerating pace as we’re observing now, which leads to no scenario of contraction ?!

Even though the quantized space has been so well explained, the loop quantum gravity itself is not really convincingly explained.  Though the readers may learn about the “spin network” as the quantum state of gravitational field and later “spinfoam” as a sort of spacetime structure, when a reader comes across the author’s 3 equations of loop quantum gravity on a T-Shirt in Fig. 7.7 on p.191, s/he probably doesn’t feel delighted or excited as those 3 equations were not really explained (not to mention derived) but they were there just to show that the theory of loop quantum gravity can be summarized in a T-Shirt 😦   By the way, the word “spin” is used only because the result involves half-integers which are like spins in quantum mechanics.

On p.187-190, the author explains that the probability of any physical event can be calculated by summing over all possible spinfoams, using the equations of loop quantum gravity (of course !).  Apparently, they take advantage of the two techniques used heavily in quantum field theory and for Standard Model, Feynman diagrams and the lattice approximation — as in “lattice QCD” I guess (as the author doesn’t say explicitly).  These two tools are so famous and broadly exercised and yet they haven’t helped the loop theorists produce useful results that we can verify experimentally ?!  The only example that the author has mentioned is the spectrum of (cosmic) background radiation as predicted by loop quantum gravity.  They are hoping that the wide-angle fluctuations they have predicted, which are different from those theoretical predictions that do not take quanta into account (p.218-219), may show up and be verified in future (satellite/space) experiments with enough precision.

One thing I don’t really share with the author’s enthusiasm is his tendency to tell us again and again that the philosophers/scientists thousands of years ago already had the same ideas of the modern dates. Once or twice may be OK or even cute but there are just too many of this kind of “forced analogy” (in my opinion) in this book. The most long-winded example is probably in p.97-106, where the author tries to tell us that Dante’s poem “Paradiso” has described 3-sphere as in Einstein’s finite universe without border. And of course, Democritus knew pretty much everything, certainly not just atoms, but even the information theory (p.242). Maybe, Italian readers would enjoy reading these frequent mentions of ancient philosophers (even though they’re not Italians). But it’s just too much for me. Sometimes it’s even given me a feeling of going to the Bible to look for answers for modern scientific problems, which is obviously opposite to the scientific and experimental spirit of this book.

In the first paragraph of p.89, on p.214-215 and p.220-221, the author apparently mentions the LIGO’s discovery of gravitational wave in 2015/2016. This is definitely an addition to the original Italian version which was first published in 2014. By the way, the author does make use of the absence of discovery of supersymmetry at LHC/CERN (or elsewhere) to his advantage, to at least give the loop quantum gravity a little “+” in comparision to (super)string theory 🙂

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QBism … cute but not useful yet ?!

9780674504646QBism: The Future of Quantum Physics

I am a little disappointed with what I have learnt from QBism (Quantum Bayesianism).  The subject that I’ve really got a clearer and better understanding from this book is the frequentist vs Bayesian interpretations of probability.  I think I’ll probably never forget what their main difference is.

The QBism solution for wavefunction collapse is explained on the 2nd paragraph on p.133: “In any experiment the calculated wavefunction furnishes the prior probabilities for empirical observations that may be made later.  Once an observation has been made … new information becomes available to the agent performing the experiment.  With this information the agent updates her probability and her wavefunction—instantaneously and without magic.  The collapse sheds its mystery. Bayesian updating describes it and finally makes the missing step explicit.”  My immediate reaction was “What ? …  Is that it ?!”  As of now, I can’t really appreciate the beauty of this so-called “solution”.  It’s more like a “quip” or like a lawyer manipulating some legal interpretations to suit his/her needs.  Maybe, as usual, quantum mechanical stuff has never been easily understood and/or appreciated, especially not quickly.  Its beauty or extraordinariness may sink in for me in the future years …

The GHZ experiment described in p.162-169 is very interesting.  In its simplicity, theoretically, one event can prove quantum mechanics right and the classical prediction wrong.  Nevertheless, this is just “common” quantum mechanics, not really due (soley) to QBism.

The only potential contribution from QBism mentioned in this book is the “quantum law of total probability” along with QBists’ efforts to try to express the quantum rules in terms of probabilities rather than wavefunctions (p.226-230).  Unfortunately, they have not found a proof yet even after involving “a small coterie of mathematicians and mathematical physicists” (4th-5th lines from the bottom of p.228) for a decade.  There, the term that distinguishes the quantum version of the total probability from the classical counterpart is an integer called the “quantum dimension” of the system, which “has nothing to do with space or time but with the number of states a quantum system can occupy” (19th-20th lines on p.229).  This dimension is said (p.230) to be more fundamental than Planck’s constant but it seems that QBists haven’t found a “practical meaning” of it.

The cost of adopting QBism seems mainly the requirement of an agent who sets a prior probability and then updates with a posterior probability.  It is not a concern for me and even not really a “cost” to me, especially compared to the “Many-Worlds Interpretation”.  Though I am not sure whether QBism can ultimately provide a bridge between psychology and physics, like what Marcus Appleby speculatively suggested (p. 230-231), essentially all quantum mechanical issues are related to certain observation and/or measurement which always requires at least one agent.  … Ah ! … of course, writing up to here, the other issue of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics as to what happened to the physical processes when there was no consciousness to observe or measure, like in early big bang epoch, is probably also or especially a difficulty for QBism  🙂

p.197 (17th line): definitely, there is an omission of a full stop “.” in the sentences ” … begins to change The law starts …” after the word “change”.

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Dubai, UAE, from my experience

Deira, Dubai (2016-11-3) :

So I have been to Dubai, UAE. 😎


Along Baniyas Road (at the edge of Dhow Wharfage, Deira)

Its metro system is connected to the airport and therefore the transport from the airport to one’s hotel is the easiest.

The first mission I have assigned myself today was to buy a postcard and mail it. But it’s far more difficult to find a postcard than I have expected.

The metro ticket system is unnecessarily complicated. Eg. if one buys the red Nol ticket (a popular option for tourists), it has to be used for only one of the 3 options, 1 zone only or 2 zones or >2 zones, for the first time and future top-up’s, one can’t mix. And if one wants to buy a daily pass, it has to be another red Nol ticket and that can be topped up only for daily passes. Their chat room staff told me something different/wrong a couple weeks before.

For the metro ticket logistic reason (to stay within one zone !), I have confined myself in Deira in the first afternoon. Unexpectedly, the Al Ahmadiya School and the Heritage House were closed for maintenance. So, the rest of the tourist spots in Deira are mainly various Souks ( Spice Souk, Gold Souk etc. ) This is the traditional quarter of Dubai and it’s not the most charming kind of tourist spots. Wandering around with temperature > 30℃ did make me dig deeper into the philosophical question of “what’s the meaning of travelling ?” again 😅 … From another perspective, these souks here in Dubai are like a modern upgrade compared to those I visited (for example) in Marrakesh/Casablanca of Morocco in 2013.

I have come across many small (at least not very big) “trading stores” outside the Souks. They looked to me like grocery stores but when I tried to buy something, I was told that unless I bought an entire cartoon (box) of it, they didn’t want to sell me just a single item.

Among all the shops in the northwestern corner of Deira that I have passed by this afternoon, there seem to be Africans and all kinds of Asians (my definition of Asians are simply people from the continent of Asia), certainly many Indians/Pakistanis/Bangleshis … There seem to be a non-negligible no. of Chinese (though not overwhelming yet). Chinese are not just tourists but many seem to be doing business here, which are not just restaurants but also hotels (with Chinese names and slogans to appeal to Chinese), shops selling clothes, utensils and all sorts of products (made in China ?). I happened to stop in front of an electric shop trying to grab something from my bag and then I noticed that the shopkeepers all seemed to be Chinese. I took a more careful look and found that their displayed products included big power supplies and/or regulators, some with ~30000 VA (!) from “CHiNT”, something our Lab. may use. I guess these Chinese business people probably have been in Dubai for quite some time (?), just like their Indian counterparts (for example). The Chinese central govt. is having a grand scheme of a new silk road … but I wonder whether this kind of things had already happened without and before the Chinese central govt. tried to tell Chinese business people what to do. The Chinese central govt. perhaps was merely reacting to realities instead of being a genuine initiator. Just some thoughts …

In the evening, I’ve made a bit of effort to find the Afghan Kebab House off Deira St. as it was recommended by a few websites. Probably, I should have ordered a stack of naans with lamb, rather than chicken buriyani — Indian (!) — that I ended up ordering, I couldn’t say that I had enjoyed it. The only merit is that it’s less than 1/3 of the price in my hotel. 😐

Burj Khalifa etc. (2016-11-4):

After some internal/mental struggle, I bought the ticket online — before I arrived at Dubai — at the price of 350 AED (US$96.65) to visit the world’s highest observation deck on a non-prime hour (500 AED on prime hours). This 828 m tallest structure in the world (for now) had its original observation decks at levels 124/125 (452/456 m). But after it was surpassed by a tower in Shanghai and then another even taller one in Canton, they created a new observation deck in late 2014 at level 148 (~555 m). My struggle was whether to spend more than 200 AED to visit this “At the Top SKY”. The “At the Top” at levels 124/125 would cost only 125 AED (non-prime)/200 AED (prime). The webpage mentioned that “you will be personally escorted to a dedicated elevator” which was just untrue. I was just one of the many high-fee paying suckers shepherded by a couple staff. There was nothing personal about it  And on the way down from levels 124/125, the “SKY” visitors need to use the same elevator as the others. The warning or notice said it’d take 30 minutes or 45 minutes for the waiting queues at level 125 and 124. I of course picked the one at level 125 and though it’s not really 30 minute’s wait, it’s probably 15-20 minutes.


Reflection of myself by the glass window of the 148th floor observation deck of Burj Khalifa

Since I have gone to this highest observation deck, I am now qualified to say that the extra fee is not worth it. The “SKY” package offers some tea (and dates) at the bottom and some juice and chocolates at the top. Though I drank a glass of lemonade and a glass of orange juice plus 4 pieces of chocolate, I still don’t feel it’s worth the extra 200 AED — which is ~always true for me, just like a more expensive meal has never made me feel more proportionally satisfied. Before buying the ticket, I read that some bloggers had the same dissatisfaction … but I decided to have this planned dissatisfaction anyway.

I took a picture by reflection of myself from the glass wall at the highest deck. My image immerged in the background of more “direct” photons (though through longer path) I thought of doing this before the visit and it actually worked at night ! A joy of a mission accomplished or an experiment succeeded. This is slightly more creative than asking a bystander or taking a selfie 

The observation deck at level 148 is considerably smaller than those at the levels 124/125.  One saw pretty much the same thing from either higher or lower observation deck and the image of the Dubai city far below is probably clearer from the lower levels.  On the lift to go up to level 148, I saw the largest floor no. was 154 but the staff told me that there are more than 160 floors. The price of 125 AED is actually about the same as the price to go up to the observation deck at One World Observatory in Manhattan (which is the highest in the western hemisphere) and the levels 124/125 at Burj Khalifa is a better bargain as it’s 70 m higher than the One World Observatory at ~382 m.

This is also the 3rd time that I paid to visit a skyscraper at night. The previous two times were at Taipei’s 101 (when it was the world’s tallest building) and New York’s Empire State Building on a July 4th watching fireworks.


From the balcony of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House

I somehow woke up after half past two in the afternoon, thanks to some weird state of remnant jetlag and not committed to sleeping very early in the morning … I managed to visit only Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House in Bur Dubai before I realized that I very likely couldn’t finish my earlier plan of visiting the Al Fahidi area. It’s fortunate that I didn’t try adventuring to visit another place or two before hurrying to Burj Khalifa. Because when I arrived at the Burj Khalifa reception desk, it’s almost 17:40 and they advised arriving 15 minutes before the reserved timeslot (18:00 for me).

Between the Dubai Mall metro station and Dubai Mall, there was a long walk (> 1 km or something like that) though there are many segments of motorized moving walkways to help you. The Mall (largest in Dubai) is truly huge and finding Burj Khalifa inside the Mall was considerably more difficult than expected. To save energy and time, I have asked many staff how to get to Burj Khalifa.

Maybe the metro is slightly slower than I thought, or Dubai is really huge. The metro line, after leaving Deira and Bur Dubai, seems typically in the middle of some wide highway-like roads far away from buildings. Probably at least some hundreds of meters before one could reach a building. After some 7 trips (at least, depending on how one counts), its average frequency is probably not as frequent as the Hong Kong MTR system but probably like New York metro system or slightly better. This Dubai metro system started to operate in Sept. 2009 and it still looks reasonably new and modern. It has two lines up to now and the two lines intersect at 2 distinct/discontinuous locations. Its most interesting or avant-garde feature is that it’s driverless ! But I’ve noticed one good feature, ie. inside the gates, there are toilets, which seemed decently clean, seemingly in each metro station (that I’ve visited)    Another feature that is not so useful to me is that each metro train seems to have a couple cabins only for women and children and another gold class cabin which charges double on the passengers.

Walking in downtown Dubai or those malls, people have appeared to be more affluent than those in Bur Dubai and Deira. From my limited observation, the visitors at the top of Burj Khalifa seemed not entirely different from those that I had seen at the One World Observatory, ie. mainly Caucasians and Asians. There were more Asians (including Middle Easterners) in Burj Khalifa. Dubai may be truly Asian in its Asian diversity. I have seen many Southeastern Asians and Chinese in Dubai’s service industry (hotel, restaurants and tourist spots like Burj Khalifa). I often felt that I had seen Thais but they were probably Filipinos. And I think I most likely have come across Chinese in service industry rather than Koreans and Japanese — some googling reveals that there are many workers from Philippines and China. I think I can’t confuse them with many Iranians here in Dubai …

Another feature that was mentioned in tourist guides and my personal observation has confirmed is that English seems to be the working language in Dubai ! I overheard staff of some facilities (hotel, metro stations or malls) speaking English to communicate with each other over their walkie-talkies etc. In Dubai, English practically is more widely used than Arabic as it serves a link between various ethnic groups as well as in European expat community and business/tourism sectors — slightly modified sentence from the 2nd paragraph on p.127 of “Pocket Rough Guide Dubai” (2nd edition/Sept. 2016). A very interesting feature indeed !


Dubai Fountain (of Dubai Mall) in the Burj Khalifa Lake at ~8 pm just outside the Burj Khalifa

….. Just remember to add a few words about the water fountain performance (Dubai Fountain) in front of the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall. It’s probably the most amazing of its kind. The water jets actually twisted and bent reminding you of women doing belly dancing, especially under the influence of the Arabic music. It’s not shown in the photo but the water jets went very high often. The water fountain performance happened every half hour at night. I arrived just before 7:40 pm and I decided to walk around the “Burj Khalifa Lake”. I walked very fast — another silly thing that a solo traveller could decide to do instinctively —and just managed to come back to the origin around 8 o’clock. One couldn’t walk entirely on the promenade around the Lake . It was a bit broken as a small portion was interrupted by construction and some parts were obstructed by hotels/shops. I had to walk around those parts.

Metro, bus, tram and abra all over Dubai (2016-11-5) :


Crossing the Creek between Bur Dubai and Deira

On the 3rd day, in addition to the metro, I have taken 3 new modes of transportation available in Dubai, from the oldest abra (wooden boat) to the newest tram, as well as the buses, which have allowed me to visit many places efficiently. Except the abra, a daily pass (of 20 AED, valid only until the midnight of that day) covers all the above transportation. I haven’t had the joy of using the daily passes for years. While all other modes of transportation were used more or less out of necessity, taking abra to cross the creek between Bur Dubai and Deira was just to gain the fun and experience and it’s the best bargain in town for only 1 AED (only 27 US cents !) per ride.


Jumeirah Mosque before the speech of the guide was given

I have somehow also paid 20 AED to visit the Jumeirah Mosque which is the only mosque in Dubai that is open to the public with a tour at 10 am every day except Fridays. The fee included something to eat (dates, pastries and pancakes) and drink (tea and water) 😁 The mosque was considerably smaller than I have expected. The main part was the explanations given by the guide(s) and the discussion afterwards. I somehow thought or hoped that it’d be a cultural event but really, it’s a religious event as the Muslim lady with an obvious British accent mainly told us about the 5 pillars of Islam. She was very eloquent; but had I known what the subject was, I probably wouldn’t have paid to join, especially that it’s taken me more than 30 minutes to walk in quick pace for ~3.4 km in a hot day to get there from the World Trade Centre metro station. Probably the only thing she’d mentioned that was unique to UAE was that the govt. actually gives a subject to the Iman in every mosque to discuss every Friday and so all mosques in UAE discussed the same subject ! Some sort of systematic control …😁

Dubai likes to build the tallest this or the largest that. But strangely, I haven’t found the largest mosque or anything close to it ? It makes one wonder what their leader is thinking 😎 … Probably smart !

After the abra, the 2nd best bargain was probably the Dubai Museum. For the same 3 AED, there were much more to see in this museum than the Sheikh Dared al Maktoum House. From outside, the fort didn’t look that big but it actually had underground floors and rooms. I have also wandered around the beautiful quarter of Bastakiya nearby but I didn’t bother going into any of those small museums (even if they were open).


Inside Madinat Jumeirah with Burj Al Arab in the background

After that, everything was modern and commercial. From the Mall of Emirates metro station, Google suggested a meandering path (on foot) to go to Madinat Jumeirah which would take more than an hour. However, I was not that stupid and I have simply walked straight and through a construction site. It took less than 25 minutes (in my pace). The most important purpose going there was to take a shot at another icon of Dubai, Burj Al Arab.

Leaving from both the Jumeirah Mosque and Madinat Jumeirah, I somehow thought of using the buses as I tried to avoid the same walking paths to go back to the metro stations. At the end, I have used the same bus no. 8 along Jumeirah Road (to go east) or along Al Sufouh (to go west). For tourists, taking buses is typically more difficult than taking the metro. But the Dubai buses seemed quite good, as it’d announce the next stop (in Arabic and English) and if you have some ideas of stops, it’s not really too difficult to find the right stop to get off, especially with the help of Google Map and the bus driver.  Fortunately, it’s also air-conditioned.


In the beach of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Jumeirah Beach Residence.

The most westward place that I have adventured to in Dubai was the areas of Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR), which is more than 30 km from my hotel in Deira. Getting off the bus, this place with all the highrise hotels and residential buildings next to the beaches and the Arabic Gulf immediately gave me some sort of déjà vu feeling. It probably looked like Hong Kong. Dubai didn’t look like a city among the most densely populated city in the world, except here. I also thought about Chicago in north Michigan Ave. where there is a small stretch of tall buildings next to the beach but it’s too small compared to this JBR. Maybe, the long stretches of Copacabana, Ipanema etc. in Rio de Janeiro of Brazil are closer in comparison. Here the buildings seemed more closely packed. In Copacabana etc. of Rio, the beaches next to the ocean are completely unobstructed and open to the public. But here in “The Walk” (~promenade) at JBR, the beaches seemed often hidden by various hotels. At the end, the last photos were taken after I sneaked into the Ritz-Carlton Hotel area  While I was strolling in “The Walk” or the Dubai Malls, with so many Caucasians, sometimes you forgot whether this was in Europe or US (except of course Europe or US probably didn’t have such a massive and closely packed collection of hotels and residential complexes next to the beaches) rather than somewhere in the Middle East.

The last public transportation that I have tried was the new tram which opened in late 2014. It’s still a small network mainly around the areas of Dubai Marina and JBR. It looks like the metro but it’s on the ground level, rather than in an elevated track as in the metro system. And this new tram system was not “driverless” as I did see a driver at the front of the tram. As a tourist, all these were just like new toys to play/use

Even though Dubai may not be the most interesting tourist spot (to me), this trip has still been quite rewarding.   The diversity of the population in this mega city and the feature of English as the lingua franca have almost been eye opening.  It’s meant to be an expensive place but I’ve managed to spend not too much, by eating in the food courts of the malls and cheaper restaurants, instead of the best but most expensive hotel restaurants.

The UAE citizen population in Dubai is said to be only slightly more than 10%.   The rest are mostly foreign workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Phillipines etc.  Apparently, there are more Indians and Pakistanis than the UAE citzens   Though I don’t know how UAE really treats the foreign workers/immigrants, I tend to admire this kind of diversity and it only adds marks to my impression towards Dubai and UAE.

Compared to my flights between USA, Korea and Hong Kong, my flights between Hong Kong and Dubai were quite empty.  I’ve got all the 3 seats on one side of the plane to myself on both flights and some other people had all the middle 4 seats to themselves.  The Dubai airport (DXB) also seemed to be not too busy at all.  It might be my limited observation and statistics but it probably didn’t bode well for this ultra-modern-looking city.  Not sure whether the low oil price would rattle the country or Dubai.  But I probably have more to worry about myself or my own country than Dubai and UAE 

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About the book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”

9780062316097I feel that I have learnt a lot of from this book, both in knowledge (such as the genus of Homo at the beginning of the book) and a few ideas which seem so obvious now but somehow I haven’t realized before.  ( Well, the principle of equivlance has been “obvious” enough ! )  Though I might have some vague and confusing ideas about these biological / archaeological / anthropological knowledge, I certainly haven’t been able to remember their names and (exact) definitions.  Let me write down a few simple things before I forget:

p.4 (lines 16-18): “Animals are said to belong to the same species if they tend to mate with each other, giving birth to fertile offspring.”

p.6: Homo neanderthalensis were in Europe and western Asia, Home erectus in East Asia and Homo soloensis in Java, Indonesia.

p.14: Around 70000 years ago, Homo sapiens spread from East Africa to Asia and all over the world.  Other Homo species (humans) have vanished and there are two theories of explanation, “Interbreeding Theory” (eg. Sapiens & Neanderthals in Europe / Sapiens & Erectus in East Asia) and “Replacement Theory”.  The latter “has been the common wisdom in the field as “it had firmer archaeological backing” and “more politically correct” (last paragraph on p.15) 🙂  Nevertheless, there started to have some evidence of “interbreeding” from DNA analyses (p.16) since 2010 though the extent seems small (eg. 1-4% or 6%).

I certainly have felt very rewarding to learn all the details.  But towards the end, the discussions, theories and the author’s extrapolations have become more and more speculative.  One realizes that they’re probably no longer any “standard model” of history but the opinions of the author’s.

One message in this book has come across as a bit of a surprise, even though it’s obvious as an afterthought.  The author told or reminded us that not just various religions, most things in our lives are actually only our imagined ideas such as liberalism, limited liability companies or countries.  Sapiens have been able to dominate the world mainly due to this kind of superior cognitive ability to take over the world from other human species and other animals which may be bigger in size or faster in speed etc.  The author calls it “The Cognitive Revolution”.  Though we all know that human rights are not apples that one may grasp (to eat), when I was told that ideas such as human rights or liberalism are just (like) different kinds of religions, I still feel a bit shocked or lost.  It’s probably like one’s religion has been attacked.  Nevertheless, when one reflects on this, all liberty, equality etc. are merely what we have in our brain/imagination.  I probably don’t think in the same way as the author does, as I think believing in one’s individualism or liberty is different from religion that one doesn’t need to believe a God or what miracles have happened.  Belief in liberty is more like a demand or upholding a principle rather than a religion.  However, I have to admit that after all, it’s probably not less ephemeral or volatile than any religion ?!

I thought I was familiar with the idea of the Scientific Revolution but the author has still managed to tell me something refreshing.  The author calls the Scientific Revolution “a revolution of ignorance”  (12th line on p.251) as people have discovered that there are/were many things that we don’t/didn’t know yet.  This has made us feel that tomorrow will be better than today, due to all kinds of scientific and technological advancement.  This then allowed the emergence of growth which has been translated to the explosion of the credit giving.  As tomorrow’s pie would be bigger than today’s, the abundance of credit has allowed capitalism to grow even until now.  Before the Scientific Revolution (~1500 AD), people didn’t see any way that tomorrow would be improved upon compared to today (as people then thought that they knew everything they needed to know), they didn’t believe that the pie could be bigger tomorrow; and therefore, credit giving to a person was betting on that person being able to grab a piece of the pie from somebody else, instead of a new or bigger pie 🙂  This has suppressed credit giving.  How interesting and insightful !

In Chapter 11, “Imperial Visions”, the author told us that there has been no real justice in history (but, in my words, only victory and defeat).  Our thoughts have been heavily shaded by various empires.  Since I am most familiar with the history of China, when the author discussed about the situation in China, I feel that it resonates with me.  Let me write down two such instances.  On p.197 (lines 12-21): “In Chinese political thinking as well as Chinese historical memory, imperial periods were henceforth seen as golden ages of order and justice. In contradiction to the modern Western view that a just world is composed of separate nation states, in China periods of political fragmentation were seen as dark ages of chaos and injustice … Every time an empire collapsed, the dominant political theory goaded the powers that be not to settle for paltry independent principalities, but to attempt reunification. Sooner or later these attempts always succeeded.”  On p.201 (lines 23-31): “In China the success of the imperial project was even more thorough.  For more than 2,000 years, a welter of ethnic and cultural groups first termed barbarians were successfully integrated into imperial Chinese culture and became Han Chinese … More than 90 per cent of the population of China are seen by themselves and by others as Han.”  This just feels so true.  All the rulers have made use of patriotism and unity to their advantage and somehow it has worked so thoroughly with the so-called Chinese !

When I first saw the title of the last chapter “The End of Homo Sapiens”, I told myself that the author must be talking about the environmental disaster to this Earth.  But this is not the case !  He actually meant that we would create some sort of superhuman (by DNA modification or other technologies) who/which are truly superior to us.  But I believe in this case, the author’s guess is not necessarily better than mine and everybody else’s.  Hehehe …

While I had some expectation (after I noticed that the author is homosexual), the author didn’t say too much about this topic.  Nevertheless, he has written quite a bit about human cruelty towards animals, especially domesticated animals.  After reading what he told us on p.91-97 of the 5th chapter, I now almost feel guilty in eating any chicken or pork or beef.  I am wondering whether the author is a passionate animal lover.  The last sentence of p.379 says: “Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.”  Overall, the author didn’t have too many good things to say about the 2nd revolution in this book “The Agricultural Revolution” which he has called “History’s Biggest Fraud”, the title of the 5th chapter.

This book was said to be published first in Hebrew in 2011 and was later translated to English (~2014) by the author.  I guess during the translation, he has added something.  On p.375 (6th line), the author said: “it was written in 2014” and on p.409, at the 17th line: “In 2013 the project received a grant” and then at the 20th line: “the world of 2014 is already…”.

I haven’t noticed any typography etc.  The only place that I’ve frowned a little is: “a more easy way”, on the last two lines of p.176.  I’d prefer “an easier way”.  The editing and proofreading is apparently superb.  The quality of paper of this book is probably the best that I have ever remembered for a popular modern book that I’ve read.  Though it has made the book considerably heavier, it has allowed colored pictures to be printed throughout the book and it also reflects well on the quality of this book.

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Reading about the LIGO project … their struggles and coming of age

Modified from an email written on Aug. 14, 2016:

9780307958198I’ve just finished reading a new book “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space” published a few months ago, written by Janna Levin who is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University.  Somehow, my summer student this year is from Barnard College which is a women’s college that somehow doesn’t merge fully with Columbia U. (unlike Radcliffe and Harvard) while Columbia U. accepts their own women students.  ( I haven’t heard of Barnard College before I read my student’s resume earlier this year. )

The book is better than I have expected in terms of the descriptions about the internal struggles and conflicts in the LIGO collaboration, especially in their earlier history. The book tells you something about cosmology and astrophysics but I don’t think one would easily find inspiration from this book in this aspect.  It’s the human characters, their chaotic behavior and the process how to get to build a BIG project that I have gained the most satisfaction.  You need to fight with and/or convince your colleagues and then the NSF (in this case, not DOE) and the Congress etc.

I have always heard of LIGO like everybody else but I had treated it like another desperate effort for decades (almost like SUSY or superstring theories … though not quite as they’re after all largely an experiment).  Though I feel I know about Kip Thorne (from his books or recent involvement in making movies like “Interstellar” etc.), I’ve never heard of the other two LIGO founders, Rai Weiss and Ron Drever.  In this book, the most you’ve learnt are about these two persons (among other characters) in addition to the entire LIGO project/experiment.  I didn’t even know that at least in the early days, LIGO was mainly a collaboration between Caltech (Kip & Ron) and MIT (Rai).

The author herself is a cosmologist and astrophysicist but in writing this book, she’s more like a journalist.  Almost always, she’d tell you where the quotes or the stories have come from …. almost as “rigorously” as in physics journals.   Her writing style in this book is often poetic.  But mingling this feature with the scientific description and personal gossips seems to form a bizarre product.  I’ve often needed to consult with dictionaries even for some words that I thought I knew.  Maybe, the author could be even less self-aware of herself while writing the stories of this book. [ A cruel comment (from me) ! … I know 🙂 ]  It’s probably really difficult to get rid of a physicist’s ego.

I guess the book is published this year mainly because of the announcement/publication of LIGO/VIRGO’s “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger”.   From reading most of the chapters, I’ve felt that she didn’t know of the discovery while writing most of the book.  The last chapter “Epilogue” was probably added almost like an after-thought.  In the “Acknowledgments” (the last line on p.213 and the first line on p.214), the author reveals that the book was originally meant to be longer.  It now has only 215 pages up to the Acknowledgments (with additionally LIGO/VIRGO collaboration list + Notes + Index → >~240 pages).

The entire LIGO project at the end integrates to about a billion dollar (3rd line from the bottom on p.185) compared to the initial ~$194 million dollars (5th line on p.135) in their 1989 proposal under the leadership of their first director Robbie Vogt.   My laboratory is trying to build a new collider called eRHIC (on top of RHIC) and the general belief is that we need to build it under a billion dollar; otherwise there is no chance for funding approval.   The LIGO/VIRGO collaboration list in their paper has more than 1000 authors but it’s still not nearly as many as (say) the Atlas Collaboration, one of the LHC experiments at CERN.  I’m well aware of the internal fights and conflicts that can happen in a big collaboration.   I read with amusement how Rai found it difficult to work with Ron in the early days and how ugly the fight between Ron and Robbie was.

When the speaker from LIGO/Columbia University came to our laboratory to give the talk about the gravitational wave discovery, he kind of predicted at the very beginning of his talk that Thorne, Weiss and Drever would get the physics Nobel Prize this year 🙂  This is quite likely even though it may not be this year.  But this book’s author actually reminds us that the LIGO events have not been corroborated by some sort of  telescope measurement (LIGO not being a telescope) as Jerry Ostriker has advocated all along (p.156-157).  From this book, one reads that Ron Drever didn’t seem to be able to work well or share decision-making with other people ; whereas Rai probably seems to be the most down-to-earth experimentalist who is still trying to improve the precision of their instruments and reduce the noise here and there, when he’s now over 80 ages old. In the later stage, Ron has largely left the picture (though Rai, Kip and latter LIGO directors all tried to get him back to LIGO) while Kip has had other endeavors (such as movies !).  Rai seems to be the constant in the LIGO project.  It’s sad that Ron now apparently suffers from dementia (just like my mother !).  { I wonder whether this may prevent him from getting the Nobel Prize ?! }  I certainly didn’t know about Ron’s sickness when I watched the discovery announcement in Feb. 2016.

At the end, it’s probably always the personal interactions that are the most interesting in all the book reading.  Though not as shocking as when I first read about Schrödinger’s private life in P. Woit’s book “Not Even Wrong”, I feel that I’ve learnt quite a bit about the personalities of Kip, Rai and Ron and LIGO even seems to have a pseudo-personal character in my mind.  Furthermore, though I’ve read about Joe Weber’s bar measurement story before, his image and character (to me) has now become even more vivid than before.

One new word to jot down here is “inspiral” : when two binaries (black holes or stars) generate ripples at the expense of orbital energy, they spiral a bit closer to each other → “they inspiral” (12th line on p.152).

p.69 (10th– 11th lines): I think “It is” in “It is true central operations are primarily maintained in a trailer” should be “Its”.  p.106 (10th line from the bottom): “principle” in “…the principle reason to do …” should probably be replaced by “principal”.  p.120 (14th line) : “malintentions” should probably be “malintents” ?!

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Elba Island & Pisa … why not just video-conferencing ?!

This is the 1st time that I’ve  joined the Elba workshops on “Forward Physics”.  So far, all (3) Elba workshops have been organized at the Hotel Hermitage of Elba Island.  While I was there, I was told that a senior management/physicist has got very good relationship with the management of Hotel Hermitage.  Therefore, future Elba workshops are also expected to hold at the same hotel.  The organizers have chosen this time as it’s just before the high season and most facilities are ready while there aren’t too many tourists competing for rooms yet.   Nevertheless, since it’s still not in the high season,  there were not many flights to the Elba Island.  Eg. between Pisa and Elba Island, there seem to be only 2 flights per week by Silver Air.  I flew from Pisa to Elba Island but on the return trip, I’ve needed to take ferry and shuttle to go to Pisa before flying to US.

May 28, 2016:

0528161351When I arrived at the Pisa airport (Aeroporto Galileo Galilei), it’s already May 28, 2016.  There was no transit channel at this small airport and one just walked out of the security area and checked in again.  This “Let L-410 Turbolet” aircraft  (from Pisa to Elba Island in Italy) should be the smallest plane that I’ve ever taken. ( My last small plane was one from Eilat to Tel Aviv in Israel but that one was not as small by comparison. )  I’ve counted that there were a total of 17 seats including those for the flight attendants. The flight time (between takeoff and landing) was about ~30 or 31 minutes.  Maybe, the European inflight service still has an edge over American that we were offered water and choices of biscuits and candy at the end 🙂  ( Southwest Airlines wouldn’t bother to do so from Islip to Boston … ) 

There was no security barrier between the pilots and the passengers (there were 7 of us including a child).  I sat in the first row and if I fully extended my arm, I more or less could touch the back of one of the pilot seats.  It’s an interesting experience.   One of the passengers was an Atlas colleague (J. Pinfold) but we didn’t readily recognize each other at that time.

0528161627When I first arrived at Hotel Hermitage, it was cloudy and the lack of sunshine made the beach (as shown in the picture here) not as spectacular as in their webpage.  Somehow, I didn’t have the intention to swim.   In fact, during my entire stay there, it’s either cloudy or raining almost like half of the time.

I would probably never  have visited this island if it was not for this 3-day conference/workshop.  My duty was to give a talk ≤ 30 minutes.  People know about Elba Island probably only because it was Napolean’s first exile island (May 4, 1814 – Feb. 26, 1815 : ) before he escaped and started his restoration effort, “The Hundred Day” … which eventually ended in June 1815 when he was defeated at the bloody Battle of Waterloo.

In this conference, Hotel Hermitage has somehow provided the so-called “full board” accommodation, ie. including 3 meals.  Each of the dinners (and some lunches) has 3 courses + dessert/salad … Too much to eat !  One not so favorable consequence is that there is not much per diem left for me to “save”.



May 29, 2016:

0529161533This photo was taken while I was in the cable car going up towards the peak of Mount Capanne.  The cable car is more like a yellow cage or basket without any cover.  Each “cage” can hold up to two persons only and one could only stand.  I used it alone.  You can easily commit suicide (which I considered for a little bit …) and it should be the most unsafe cable car that I’ve seen.  One had to jump or run into the cage in order to get on it.  It’s certainly working nicely but looks primitive compared to my last cable car experience in Sugar Mountain in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago.  The entire cable car journey takes about 18 minutes one way. The ticket was also €18 (andata e ritorno) — which apparently hasn’t changed for quite a few years.

0529161602aAfter one gets off from the cable off, one might still climb the last 50 m or so to go to the real peak.  A few people were already there when I reached there.  A couple guys have helped me take some pictures.   When a nice guy (Dutch ?) asked me whether I was from the States, I was pleased, or actually more pleased than if he asked whether I was Japanese/Korean/Chinese. ( Not sure how he realized that I was from US … maybe he has been to US and noticed the Verizon sign on my LG G3 phone. )  He and his friend drove to a place which was like ~600 m above sea level (higher than where I took the cable car) and hiked the rest of ~400 m.

The place with red houses should be Marciana, just below the Cabinovia, where I took the cable car.

At the beginning of the cable car ascent, the yellow cage was oscillating left and right and I was mildly scared or worried.  However,  the more or really scary experience was probably the drive to reach this “Cabinovia”.  I “blindly” trusted “Google Map” (from my phone).  Soon after Procchio, it suddenly told me to make a sharp left turn and drive steeply upwards to “Via Redinoce” !  I thought it’s weird but I didn’t have time to analyze and just thought to stick to Google’s instruction.  It was a very narrow road and a large portion of this route didn’t have concrete/cement pavement but just mud/soil.  It’d be very difficult if there was another car.  But it seemed to me nobody would drive normally on that road.  Only stupid tourist who would trust Google like me ?!  The Renault Clio that I rented found it very hard to go uphill and in that rocky condition.  At one Y-junction, I turned into a wider path that I thought looked more like the right path but I was wrong (as it’s blocked 20 m or so after I turned into it).  I tried to made a U turn in the narrow road bordering a cliff.  I reversed the Renault into a ditch.  I couldn’t get the car out from the ditch at first.  At one point, I thought I might never get the car out.  I tried to see whether I got any strength to get it out using my hands and body, but it just seemed impossible.  After some 10 trials of pumping the gas and relaxing the gear at the right time (otherwise, it just stalled), I finally got the car out.  Wow !!! …  I had worried that I might be stuck there for the whole day, awaiting rescue.  After that, I almost wanted to retreat in the original path but a quick calculation in my brain told me to continue to drive forward.  I made it to the Cabinovia (of Mount Capanne) at the end.  On the way back, I of course didn’t make the same mistake and took the usual road SP 25/SP 24.  In fact, Google didn’t suggest that nasty shortcut any more.

0529161050I rented the Renault Clio mainly to go to take the cable car but I also went to Portoferraio (which is the port that I’d go to on June 2 to take the ferry to reach Italy Mainland in the morning when leaving for US).  Approaching Portoferraio, I noticed a COOP (supermarket) and I immediately decided to park my car there (as it’d be free !).  The things in COOP were certainly much cheaper than what you’d pay at the hotel and around.  It’s less than 100 m from the COOP parking lot to the center of Portoferraio.  The car rental cost €60 — quite a bit of rip-off. Originally, I was hoping for the Chinese-made ZD electric car which would cost €20 only (from 09:00 to 19:00).  But before I left US, they already told me that the new ZD electric would arrive only on June 2 — too late !  That day, with €5 for the gasoline that I’d refilled before I returned, the total transportation cost was €83. … Hmm … Hmm …

The drive in the Island has almost always been full of “S” bends and I just kept turning left and right alternately.  I guess it’s because the roads are just around the hills/mountains.  It could be exhilarating but I was more tense than anything else.  From time to time, other cars just overtook me as I didn’t drive fast enough 😦  Most drivers didn’t seem to want to stay on the other side and came dangerously too close to the middle

One of the photos that I’ve taken at the peak of Mount Capanne has become the background of my first/title slide presented in the “3rd Elba workshop on Forward Physics”.   My talk was the first one in the entire conference.   While I’ve made a habit of using the scenery at the conference location as the background for my titile slide, a few other people also have done the same.  But their background were just the scenery around Hotel Hermitage, not at the top of Mount Capanne 🙂

June 2, 2016:

0602161439bAfter more than 20 years, I’ve come back to Pisa again (due to flight scheduling). In 1995 summer when I visited it for the 1st time (due partially to an Italian friend Graziano in Pisa whom I met in the CERN summer school in Dubna/Russia), the Leaning Tower was undergoing a structural strenthening project and tourists were not allowed to climb up. But it finished in ~2001 and today, I’ve climbed to the top of the tower 🙂

0602161635_HDRI arrived at the ticket office about 14:30 and the line was not too long.  After 5-10 minutes, when I got to choose, the earliest time for me to climb was 16:15. Each person is assigned a specific time to go in and you have 30 minutes — but I’m not sure they’d really force you out if you don’t go after half an hour.  A staff gave an introduction at the beginning in Italian and English (each about a couple minutes).  Then, you’re free to climb the ~260 steps.  The 2nd photo was one that fellow tourists have helped take a photo of me when I was at the top and one could see the Cathedral behind and Baptistery a bit further behind.

One note I’d like to drop : One could just go and buy the ticket when one arrives, even though one may need to wait a couple hours before climbing the tower. But if one wants to buy the Leaning Tower tickets, one should go to the official site: (which would tell you that the price is €18) and not this one : which would sell you a ticket at the price of €30 including tour guide. I was slightly confused as the name of the second website looks more relevant and more official than the first one 🙂 But one probably wouldn’t make the stupid mistake anyway because the €30 ticket is not available every day.

In this “Piazza del Duomo”, there are the Cathedral and Baptistery in the center plus “Camposanto” and a “Sinopie Museum” at the side. Paying €5/ €7/ €8, one may visit one/two/all of the Baptistery/Camposanto/Sinopie Museum. The Cathedral can be visited any time if you buy any of the Leaning Tower ticket or the above-mentioned 3 places. In fact, if you don’t buy any ticket, you may still go to collect “the fixed time free ticket” to visit the Cathedral.

Since I had a bit of time, I paid €5 to go to Baptistery. As a miser type of person, I didn’t find Baptistery worth €5. But it does have a 2nd floor that you could climb up and look down from above for a different view. Just before I wanted to leave, I heard the ‘echo demonstration’ which I didn’t find really spectacular when I was there because I thought it’s just broadcasting a choir’s singing though I saw a woman at the center. Now (after reading a bit more), I realize that then it’s NOT any choir’s singing being broadcasted but it’s really just the woman at the center singing a few notes and the dome structure created amazing echo (intereference !) effect which made you feel that many people were singing at the same time ! I was so stupid and it really truly was amazing how the constructive interference works 🙂 … I noticed that nobody was guarding the exit and so if you dare, you can enter the Baptistery from the exit, free of charge ! When I was walking out, I saw a tall Caucasian girl enter from the exit. Yeah … she’s the “practitioner” of this “theory of mine” !!

I also went as far as possible in the entrances for Camposanto and the Sinopie Museum and I could pretty much get the feeling what they were like without really visiting — of course, another theory 🙂

While I was the Elba Island, I heard (~second-handedly) some Italians claim that Pisa is the worst place in Tuscany of Italy.  A bit of exaggeration … I guess it’s probably because it pretty much has got only the Piazza del Dumo and almost nothing else. If it’s not due to the engineering mistake of the Leaning Tower, tourists might not even notice Pisa ?! ( By the way, the staff at the bottom of the Tower told us that it’s not clear who/which engineer has actually designed/built the Tower … probably due to its failure. )

0602161715aFrom my B&B (250 m from the PISA airport), it’s only ~2.9 km in walking distance to the Leaning Tower according to Google Map.  After I arrived at the train station (~10 minutes’ walk from my B&B), the places started to seem more interesting and one would see more tourists.  I’ve come across a few Piazza.  On the way back, I found and visited “Piazza del Cavalieri” as the B&B had recommended earlier. I’ve quickly noticed the “Scuola Normale Superiore” and I believe that Graziano more than 20 years ago must have shown me this place — though I’m not sure whether we walked or drove past here — as I immediately remembered that this is the place/university for only geniuses. The famous particle physicists and Nobel Prize winners Enrico Fermi and Carlo Rubbia were both this school’s alumni.

One thing I forgot to mention: when I arrived at Pisa and saw quite some ethnic Asians and Africans, it’s suddenly made me realize more readily that I had never seemed to see any Asians or Africans back in the entire Elba Island. The webpage for this “Forward Physics” workshop has listed only ~42 participants who actually came to the Elba Island — as quite some speakers actually gave their talks remotely via video-conferencing facilities.  There were some additional secretaries and technicians from INFN/Pisa — the main organizer. Also due to the problem of small sampling, I think I was the only non-Caucasian in the conference and my last name “Yip” was the last one in alphabetical order (no Z’s !) 😃   The talks were all related to CERN experiments/detectors EXCEPT two, one about the Tevatron/Fermilab results given by a colleague via video-conferencing from Rockefeller U. in New York and the other being mine about the RHIC/BNL results. Of course, the CERN/LHC expts. have some substantial North American involvement; but it was only about ~10% in this conference.  Occasionally when I was consciously aware that I was the only Asian in this conference or hotel (or even the entire Elba Island ?), I certainly found it awkward and a little bizarre. Though it may be just a consequence of small sampling, I wonder whether this “feature” could be harder to happen in North America ?!



June 3, 2016:

I flew non-stop from JFK/New York to Pisa and then to the Elba Island on May 28, 2016.  But on the way back, not only did I have to take ferry and shuttle to get to Pisa, I also needed to change at Rome (June 3, 2016) in order to catch an Alitalia flight to JFK/New York.  Rome was just a short flight from Pisa (~45 minutes).  I believe I was at the same Rome Airport in ~Oct. 2002 for a conference in Frascati.  But this time, the airport seems much more modern than what I can remember. … and on a very trivial note,  I have noticed a very similar arrangement of the soap/water/dry air delivery system at both Pisa and Rome airports.  Probably a made-in-Italy thing ?!

At the airport or during the flights, I’ve had a lot of time to think, in addition to reading my novel.  I don’t really enjoy going to conferences mainly because I’ve had to socialize with the other participants and speakers during the meals.  Many people like to talk with their old acquaintances and not all people are talkative.  I usually only talk with my immediate neighbors in the dining table during a meal.  I’ve found it hard to talk across the table most of the time (even though sometimes I’ve tried to) and I can’t hear well when it’s beyond the immediate neighbors unless everybody starts to shout.  I’ve found that I have often needed to initiate the talking points.  Over the year, I’ve got tired of “cultural conversations” or pretending to be interested in other people’s culture/custom, even though I still need to do it and sometimes still have some curiosity left in me to probe into various cultural peculiarities.  I’m certainly anti-social and I’ve found dining alone more pleasant 🙂


Several speakers actually gave talks via video-conferencing facility (Vidyo, this time).  It made me wonder why we all do video-conferencing rather than spend money and time to come to a remote island ?!  Though journalists haven’t made reports to tell the public that it’s a waste of tax money for scientists to go to conference, I sometimes think so.  On one hand, I’ve come to join this conference mainly because of the timing and opportunity just working out for me; on the other hand,  I haven’t been to a conference for a year or two and I think it’s not good for my academic record or annual performance appraisal that I haven’t gone to any conference recently.  In this small conference or workshop, I’ve actually learnt from the participants through personal interactions more than other conferences, esp. from physicists who actually do the work such as Mario Deile and Sune Jakobsen.  Nevertheless, I still have doubt about the usefulness of all the scientific conferences.  Maybe, it’s an unspoken “benefit” (such as a semi-vacation ?) for the not very well-off scientists ?!

I’ve met a couple former DELPHI collaborators (more or less ~20 years ago) such as Kenneth Osterberg and Ronan Mcnulty.  They didn’t recognize me and though I found Ronan’s face familiar, I didn’t remember where I had know him before at first.  I guess, since I’m such an “anti-socialist”, this is the natural consequence 😦  They all reminded me of my former Oxford colleagues (in our conversations), Guy, Paula, or even Ainsley.

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How I view Panama and practicalities

Mar. 24-27, 2016 :

I’ve read a bit about Panama in travel guide books and searched online before my trip to Panama.   When I arrived at Panama, Panama seemed a bit more modern and wealthier than my expectation (which I was not too sure how I had formed in my mind before I stepped on the land of Panama).  Not just the currency (US dollars), Panama seems a bit too similar to US to be anything near exotic for a tourist from USA 🙂  Apart from the metro and metro bus, everything else in the 3 days has seemed to be more expensive than I have expected / hoped.   The restaurants seemed to be at least as expensive as in US.  Maybe, this is only true for tourists whereas the locals know how to find the best deals ?!

From what I’ve experienced in the 3 day, this country basically “works”.   But underneath the surface, the quality or value that one gets from the high cost is not very satisfactory (except the metro/metro bus), at least as far as a tourist is concerned.  Even though the original hardware may be good, the maintenance was not nearly as good; eg. the electric hand driers or the paper towel dispensers usually didn’t work during the  3+ hours that I have spent in the Tocumen Airport (PTY).


Walking to the main post office was my first task on the first morning of this trip.  After I found that it’s closed (on a Good Friday, Mar. 25, 2006 !), I tried to go to test my luck at the second destination, Pamaná Viejo.  I made use of the best bargain in town, the public transportation, metro bus and metro (subway).  The metro card (usable for both bus and subway) cost $2.  Each bus trip then cost only 25 cents or 35 cents for the subway ride.  Though I was not happy to have to pay $2 to be able to use the metro card, just one trip was worth the $2 fee compared to the taxi (which may easily be $3 or $5 for each ride) !  After I purchased the metro card, I had difficulty in adding $1 to the card as I couldn’t insert the newly bought metro card into the required slot.  ( One has to add value to the metro card.  $2 is merely to buy the physical card and it has $0 value if one doesn’t add anything to it ! ) I asked a local lady to help and then realized that the card didn’t need to be inserted all the way and I could just leave it sort of half-inserted when I charged it.  No matter how detailed information one might have found before, there might still be surprising detail that has not been written before by anybody else !

0325160925_HDRI found and waited in a bus stop in Av. Justo Arosemena for about 10 minutes or so before I found a bus arriving but not with the sign for Panamá Viejo.  I then used my poor Spanish to ask a guy whether that was the stop to go to Panamá Viejo.  That guy told me that I had to go to Av. Balboa to find the bus stop to go to Panamá Viejo.  I kind of knew/expected the answer (as I had been wondering) before he replied and though I didn’t recognise most of his Spanish words, I kind of understood what he said.  This has been the “norm” in all the 3 days.

I easily found the bus stop in Cinta Costera, just south of Av. Balboa.   Most shops were closed in Good Friday (Mar. 25, 2016).  Fortunately the charming Cinta Costera at the ocean front was readily approachable in any day of the year.  I took a couple photos near the monument of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa before going to wait for the bus.

0325161008_HDRI took my first metro bus (like locals!) to the ruin area of Pamaná Viejo and “” indicated that it was opened that day.  Online sources told us to stop at the Nautica Tower but the driver, after knowing where I wanted to go, let me get off at the far end of Pamaná Viejo, near the most prominent Bell Tower.  Unfortunately, when I got off the bus and talked to a very young guard, I realized that Pamaná Viejo was closed that day (except for  some travel agents if I understood him correctly) .  Nevertheless, from outside the fence, I could see the Bell Tower and all the ruins inside the fence.  All of Pamaná Viejo seemed to be just insde the fence along Via Cincuentenario and so I just walked along Via Cincuentenario for a km or a mile or so.  I felt that I essentially saw all (?) of Pamaná Viejo free of charge 🙂  But there’s not really much to see and just ruins (as some people have honestly commented online).  While planning, I hesitated whether I should come and now I really think Pamaná Viejo is not worth my visiting.

The walk was not bad at all if the temperature could have been considerably lower.   After I arrived at the visiting center of Pamaná Viejo (near Nautica Tower, the originally intended starting point), I asked and found the bus stop to go to Multiplaza for lunch and for a curious visit in the mall there.  This mall there and probably everywhere in Panama City (or the World ?) was pretty much the same as in US.  The restaurants had very similar brand names as in US.  I ordered “Mango fish” in “Ruby Tuesday” and it cost more than $15 (including 10% service charge).  I was happy to read that Panamanians don’t expect tipping and I easily complied 🙂   In the later afternoon, I went back to the beautiful Cinta Costera area, east of where I had been that morning.  I’ve always like getting close to the waters.  Inside Panama City, Cinta Costera and later Amador Causeway were my best experiences.  Sitting in a random place at the promenade of Cinta Costera and staring at the Pacific Ocean with its seemingly static surface, I could almost spend many hours there reading my novel, if it was not nearly as hot.


0326161003_HDRThe Panama Canal partial transit tour on the next day was the highlight of the entire Panama trip.  In fact, the dates of this Panama trip was basically determined by this partial transit trip.   After listening to 3 languages (English, Spanish and German) of explanation, I understood that it’s simply letting the ships/boats go into the “lock system”, shutting the gates of the locks, pumping in 26 million gallons of water into the “locks” in ~ 8 minutes to raise the water level, then the ships just going through the canal on the elevated water level — something they have done for >100 years.

The northbound Panama partial transit trip (~half day) has cost me $150 as I bought it directly from one of the two ship companies (“Panama Marine Adventures” — the website of the other company “Canal and Bay Tours” didn’t work well for making reservations and didn’t provide detailed information when I tried to make reservation in Jan. 2016; in addition, they didn’t respond as quickly as their competitor).  If one bought tickets from other travel agencies, they would charge you more and the only additional thing that they did was just to deliver you from your hotel to the marina and back.

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Passing the locks was very very slow, slower than the US-Mexico border or the HK-Mainland China border.  Most of the time, the ships just sat there and waited.  I’ve read and concluded that it’s a bit too much for a full transit trip (they say 8 hours, but it can be considerably longer due to the traffic).  I could feel the boring wait when we got stuck in our first lock.  Our ship/boat was small compared to some cruise ship. In fact, there was another ship like ours side by side and even touching ours, while sailing through the locks. In addition, there was one considerably bigger cargo ship in front of us, making it 3 at that time inside the locks.  The most interesting or even exhilarating part was when I saw that the gate was shut and the ship was gradually raised by the water to the level almost as high as the shut gate.

After passing through just the first set of locks, I already felt “mission accomplished”. The partial transit trip was probably the right choice 😁  Apparently, after the first set of locks (Miraflores Locks) — at the southern end, people or at least I have sort of lost interest very quickly.  I didn’t even go out to see and take picture at the 2nd set of locks (Pedro Miguel Locks).  The one going into the Caribbean Sea that I didn’t visit was called the Gatun Locks.  All 3 set of locks are now being built with larger lock systems to allow for wider and larger ships to go through; otherwise the Panama Canal would lose a lot of business.

After passing the 2 sets of locks, we got off the ship at Gamboa and the bus was meant to take us back to Flamenco Marina where we started.  But I asked them to drop me off at the Biomuseo.

Going to the Flamenco Marina that morning was the only time that I paid cash to take taxi.  In this exercise, I’ve realized that the hotel taxi was so much more expensive than the normal yellow cab.  One day earlier, before 6 am, I walked down the hotel to practise bargaining.  The hotel taxi driver asked for $25 for the trip from my hotel to Flamenco Marina at the end of the Amador Causeway.  I bargained it down to $20.  Later that day, I emailed another driver and she also wanted $25.  That morning, I just walked around the corner and waved down a yellow taxi. When I asked him “Cuánto …”, I was hoping $15 and then I might offer $10, it might end up in between.  I didn’t understand his reply at first as it was totally out of my expectation range.  After him repeating a bit (maybe even with some finger counting), I finally realized that he was saying “Ocho”, $8 😮  I hesitated for a second and decided to just get on his cab.

The driver drove very fast and it probably took not more than 15 minutes to get to Flamenco Marina from my hotel and I arrived ~50 minutes before the required check-in time.  If not taking the taxi, I could take the metro (subway) to Albrook and then take a bus to the last stop on Amador Causeway. But the availability of metro and esp. the bus was not clear and I couldn’t really practise to test the viability of this indirect route that early in the morning.  So, I decided that it’s not worth the risk.

0326161453_HDRThe best about the Biomuseo was the funky and bizarre architecture designed by the famous American architect Frank Gehry.  This was probably the third piece of architecture of F. Gehry that I’ve personally visited, after the Getty Center in LA and  Guggenheim Museum in NYC.  The entrance fee for a non-resident adult was $22, almost as expensive as the suggested donation/admission ($25) for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC but with much less to see.  Inside, the best thing may be the 6 minute video in multiple huge screens on the side walls, ceiling as well as the floor, about the wonderful nature, plant and animal.  I walked a bit too fast at the beginning as I didn’t know how small this museum was.   I slowed down in the middle and prolonged the visit to nearly one hour but I could have stepped out easily after half an hour.

After visiting the Biomuseo, I “tested” the bus system again in Amador Causeway.  After finding the bus stop, I was happy to see a local couple ( a man and a woman), who walked to the same bus stop almost at the same time as I did.  I asked them whether that stop was for the metro bus to go to Albrook with my metro card.  Since their answer was what I had hoped/expected, my limited Spanish was more than enough.  Later, I saw another local person also asked the same question when she came to the bus stop.  There was no real written sign or anything there (like most other places).   Usually, the metro bus has got a written orange sign but there it was a blue vehicle sign with no word.  That had made me want to ask.  At the end, the bus arrived after 30 minutes’wait.  But the mild breeze plus hiding under the canopy canvas and trees has made the wait in the middle of the Amador Causeway more or less pleasant.  If it’s not so hot, I might have walked a bit more in this Causeway.

In contrast to the previous day walking along Via España or around Cinta Costera, the Albrook bus terminal and the Albrook Mall were full of people.   In the “Boulevard Cafe” in a corner of the mall, I ventured to have a bowl of “Sancocho” (~chicken stew in Panama) which turned out to be the best food that I have had in Panama.  This assertion also takes into account about the price which was like $5.90 (including tax) for the bigger bowl (probably $1 cheaper for a smaller bowl).  Though I also went to try pork chop over rice dish in a very local restaurant along Av. Central the next day, this was about the only special Panamamian food that I’ve tried in Panama.  The picture in the menu and the photo high on the front of the restaurant showed a lot more meat and stuff in the bowl but in reality, the bowl was mostly just the soup.  But it tasted delicious and mild, not too spicy nor salty.  Sancocho may be cooked differently in various Latin American countries but this Panamanian version of Sancocho seemed to be stewed with chicken and was just good and right for me !

0327161408a_HDROn the last day, the major destination was Casco Viejo, which was also my last stop in this trip of Panama before I left for US that night.  Unlike Pamaná Viejo, people very much actually live in this old town.   After getting off from the metro station “5 de Mayo” and finding Av. Central, I strolled along the busy Av. Central bustled with all kinds of local shops and people.

At the center of Casco Viejo, it was the Plaza de la Catedral (also known as Plaza Mayor or Plaza de la Independencia).  After asking a girl to help take a photo, I wondered how I spent my last few (~3) hours in Panama.  There was the Museo del Canal Interoceánico that I planned to go; but I’ve also found that to hide from the heat, churches or catherdrals were good choices, especially the one called “San Francisco de Asis”, very clean and brand-new-looking, next to Palacio Bolivár with good air-conditioning, was probably about the best in the old town.  In fact, the old town was full of churches and cathedrals. I guess that’s what people liked to go to in the old days 🙂

The entrance fee to Museo del Canal Interoceánico was $10 (for a non-resident adult).  If I wanted an English guide, it’d cost $3 more.  I knew that the exhibition was mostly Spanish in this museum but I was never interested in all the glorious details anyway and I’d rather walk around myself than having somebody accompanying me.  [ Haha … I guess I am truly a solo traveler and just the idea of companion scares me. 😀  ]  On the 2nd floor, though the exhibition was mostly in Spanish, there were some English summaries here and there.  They were actually good for me as I didn’t enjoy reading every detail everywhere and the summary just had the right length for me.  However, on the 3rd floor, it’s really all Spanish (except a couple English newspaper cuttings).  And yet, it’s OK as people have always said “a picture is worth a thousand words”.  With the pictures and my limited Spanish vocabularies, I at least knew what it’s going on.  At the end, I did feel that I learnt a lot about the Panama Canal as well as the history of Panama.  They like to say that Panama is not just the bridge between the North and South America, but also the crossroads of the World.

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I guess, at the end, there were something above my expectation and also something below my expectation 😛  I don’t think I’ll go back to visit again (as for most other places in the world).  The canal was certainly once in a lifetime experience and the rest was not too elegant but also not too shabby.  Just the prices were too high (except the metro bus and subway), at least for tourists.


One awkward or unfortunate experience was with the postal mail service which is handled by “Correos y Telégrafos” in Panama.  I arrived at the Tocumen airport and hotel (Hyatt Place Downtown Panama) in the night of Mar. 24 and my flight left in the night of Mar. 27.  As these 3 day were the Easter holiday, the post offices were all closed.  I actually walked to the main post office opposite to Basílica Menor Don Bosco as well as the one in Plaza Concordia near my hotel.  There was no hole/opening outside these closed post offices and nor any post boxes in the streets for me to throw in my postcard, even if I could find a stamp.  And of course, I couldn’t find any stamps to buy.

I tried a few times to talk to the receptionists in my hotel and it seemed that the hotel didn’t want to help their clients with the mails such as my postcard.  There was one guy in the reception who smiled and declared that he could help me personally if I just gave him $2.  His smile etc. somehow didn’t make me trust him and at the end, I didn’t take up his personal offer as I was not sure whether he would just throw away my postcard.   At the receptionists’ suggestion, I did go to the Bristol hotel just a block down the hill but they couldn’t sell me any stamp and told me to go to Plaza Concordia.  I also went to Marriot nearby and got the same result.  Both Bristol and Marriot did ask me whether I had a reservation with them and esp. Marriott explicitly said that if I stayed there, they could help me mail my postcard.

It’d be great if Hyatt Place would be willing to do the same for their clients’ mails, esp. in holidays when the post offices are closed.  I had suggested to them when they sent me email to ask for my feedback.   I unfortunately have had to mail my postcard when I got back to US 😦


… One tiny bit to add : Though US coins are accepted and used in Panama, they did mint their own coins.  I got a couple Panamanian quarters but I gave them up when I bought a 75 cent ice-cream on the way of leaving Casco Viejo.  I still have the $2-worth metro card with 20 cents left in it 😎



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