bhobba physics interview

Interview with Physics Mentor bhobba

Estimated Read Time: 8 minute(s)
Common Topics: got, get, really, thought, years

Give us an executive summary on bhobba

I was born in Toowong Brisbane Australia 17/11/1955, and was raised in suburbs around Toowong – Toowong itself, Taringa and Indooroopilly. I went to 3 schools Taringa State School,. Toowong High and Indooroopilly High. I now live in Redland Bay Queensland Australia. It is about halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. I am 62 years old and spent most of my working life in government departments doing computing.- about 20 years of it in Canberra.

What was your school experience like?

At school I was a lazy good for nothing just studying what I liked – which was mostly electronics and math. One of the most profound experiences I had was discovering how math made understanding electronics much easier. I could not understand feedback. But I wrote the equations and all was clear. Nor could I understand the phase shift of capacitors and inductor’s – but read about the phasor representation and just by differentiating all was clear. That’s when I knew mathematics was the key to understanding. Later as I learned more and more it simply reinforced it was the real key. But because I was so lazy I didn’t do well and decided to work rather than go to university. I graduated in 1982 – well sort of – I failed English. Some universities required it for entry – others didn’t. But I since I wasn’t going I didn’t really care.

From 1972 to 1982 I worked in the Queensland Housing Commission mostly balancing payment slips I got from the reserve bank and preparing them into batches to feed into the departments computer system. Because I didn’t pass English that job was about as far as I could go. At the time I didn’t care, but in a few years I realized I couldn’t do that the rest of my life so went to university part time – the QUT because it was close to where I worked – good choice it turned out – liked all my professors. I thought about math and electronics since it was what I liked, but on reflection decided on math and computing since the electronic magazines were saying it was the next big thing. I also knew jobs were easy to get with computing qualifications in the government. I started in 1978 not knowing how I would do.

I thought – how do you get good marks? Here is what I figured out. First at lectures take copious notes, then at home rewrite then. Do all assignments early. Get past exam papers first day and start doing them, until at the end of the course you can do them all in your sleep. I was lucky – I hit the jackpot on how to do well and got pretty much straight honors in all subjects. A side effect that I now feel silly about was I became really full of myself. Going to work after my degree, and meeting people a LOT smarter than me, quickly cured me of that – but I wince remembering my attitude back then. Anyway finished my degree in 5 years with very high marks. The professors were friendly to good students and exempted me from some prerequisite courses so I could take more advanced ones. For example I did Methods Of Mathematical Economics and you were supposed to have done macro and micro economics but they let me enroll after promising to study it over the break.

Did you continue your studies? If not, what next?

My professors wanted me to do a Masters then a PhD but was sick of formal study so decided to get a job instead. They had headhunters from all over the place interview new graduates and I decided on the Australian Federal Police in Canberra as a programmer. In one year I was a senior programmer, another year a team leader leading the computer security section. That was interesting – attending all these Defense Signals Directorate courses, but I was a bit of a maverick.

Computer security people used to speak in hushed tones about these technical things that could be exploited. I never got their attitude to it – sure we should technically protect the system, but most of the stuff didn’t really do much good IMHO. This was stuff like demanding special characters and what not in passwords. I didn’t think they made anything safer. People didn’t commit complex passwords to memory – they wrote them down somewhere and all you had to do was find where they wrote it. So I made it simple – they then used things like names and dates that were easy to remember and not written down anywhere. But you have the rule – three tries and you are locked out. The chances of guessing it during three tries is rather low so I decided on that – it was easier on the user. Besides it was well known rather than mount a technical attack its simpler to just compromise somebody in some way which means you not only get information but filtered info.

I stayed there until 1990 but they had this idea of putting everyone on contracts. I thought it silly for various reasons so I decided to leave. It turned out I was correct because after 5 years when the bonuses were to be paid (you got a bonus if you completed your contract) treasury hit the roof. Why are we paying all this money? They paid the bonuses because they were contracted to but got rid of contracts.

Where did you transfer to next?

I transferred to what I later found was the worst government department of all – the Child Support Agency. I wasn’t a very good fit for that place because most people there were process oriented but I was result oriented. I will not regale anyone with details but overall it didn’t work well for me there. I also started having bouts of sickness. I got depression for no apparent reason and developed a fear of flying.

Went to stay with my parents to try and sort it out – saw a psychiatrist who was very suspicious I had something else – probably some kind of autoimmune disease. I got a work-over physically by him and an endocrinologist, but found nothing. He treated me for depression and eventually it went away but the doctors started regular blood tests. One day my left knee started to hurt. Anyway they went in and had a look – it was evidently a mess.

They thought patella mistracking was the issue, but blood tests showed differently – eventually. My ESR (a measure of inflammation in the body) shot up, That was winter in Canberra and my doctor said simple winter sinus trouble can cause it – get it done in summer. I was up in Brisbane at the time and got it done. Sure enough – it was up – my doctor said – psoriatic arthritis – your psychiatrist was right. I went back to Canberra, but it just got worse. I took some sick leave, long service and holidays for all up about two years but realized I could not return to work so retired. I would get formal superannuation in 2010 at 55 so sold my house and permanently stayed at Redland Bay with relatives – I am in a granny flat at my sisters place these days..

How did you get back into the physics world?

With time on my hands I turned to stuff I had been interested in over the years. GR which I learnt from Wald after a few preliminary books and hung around on sci,physics.relativity. At the start it had genuine scientists like John Baez and Steve Carlip but became so infested with cranks I gave it away. I then turned to QM – I already had studied some in Canberra – reading Dirac and Von-Neumann. Then sorting out that damnable Dirac Delta function struck and I did a long sojourn into Rigged Hilbert Spaces and such.

I came out the other end with my issues resolved but it took a while. Then I heard of Ballentine and got a copy – it was a revelation – nearly all my issues with QM melted away – some remained but they are slowly resolving. I also came into contact with Landau – Mechanics. This was also a revelation. I am now convinced of the fundamental importance of symmetry. A bit after this I was just hunting around on the net and came across philosophy forums and a post about Quantum Darwinism. I thought it has some inaccuracies, but the philosopher that started the tread thought I had destroyed what he thought was an orderly thread so really attacked me. It soon became apparent his technical knowledge was not really up to the task so he asked me to continue the discussion here.

Well it was pretty obvious technically he really didn’t understand it and the discussion petered out. But I found I liked it here so stayed. I became aware of some actual misconceptions I had and my understanding blossomed here. I was very very humbled when made a science adviser, and flabbergasted when invited to be a mentor. I am very happy in being able to help people actually understand physics, sometimes math and occasionally computer science.

What are you working through now?

Right now I am caught up in understanding zeta function regularization and re-normalization. There is a lot of guff out there on things like why 1+2+3+4…….. = -1/12. I at first thought is was just definitional, but a bit further investigation lead me to believe it’s really just the standard extension thing we do in math. Take the sync function used a lot in signal theory (eg Shannon’s Sampling Theorem and basic to digital audio) sine x/x. At zero you get 0/0 which in not a valid value for a function so it looks like – drats we cant use that. But wait a minute we remember in the deep recesses of our minds l’Hopital and take the limit as x goes to zero. Vola – you get 1 and define it as that. Its not really it but we define it that way because it makes the function nice and continuous. Remembering complex analysis its a removable singularity – and that is the real lesson. When we go to the complex plane these things become clear. It’s really the same with divergent series. We are simply going to the complex plane where the powerful analytic continuation procedure can be applied. Like the sync function many apparent divergences are removable – some are not – and the answer depends sometimes on the function you analytically continue – but I think that’s basically it – a simple extension to remove an apparent divergence.

Thanks for participating bhobba! Readers find out more great information from bhobba at his community profile.



2 replies
  1. berkeman says:

    Very fun read, thanks. :smile:

    I especially liked this part from early high school…
    One of the most profound experiences I had was discovering how math made understanding electronics much easier. I could not understand feedback. But I wrote the equations and all was clear. Nor could I understand the phase shift of capacitors and inductor’s – but read about the phasor representation and just by differentiating all was clear. That’s when I knew mathematics was the key to understanding. Later as I learned more and more it simply reinforced it was the real key.


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