A few things I've learned in 2017 - things to remember

A few things I’ve learned in 2017 – things to remember

Here are a few of the things that I have learned in 2017. Random order.

– I’m not in control of my feelings. I’m not in control of other people’s behaviour or their thoughts. And, I’m definitely not in control of most things that happen in my life. But, I can control how I react to my feelings. I get to choose the people I surround myself with. Ultimately, I decide who I want to be. As my mum likes to say: “you can’t fight the waves, but you can learn how to surf”.

– I already knew that the structure of my brain alters when I learn something new. But, this year I learned that I can also influence my emotions and the way that I think. The structure of my brain changes when I become aware of habitual reactions to emotions. I am basically the architect of my mind – or, of myself as a person. This is linked to the previous point: I get to choose who I want to be.

– I can’t love others if I am not happy with myself. Relying on other people for happiness doesn’t work and won’t make me happy in the long run. Happiness has to come from me first.

– Family and friends are important. Taking care of them is important too.

– People come and go. That’s ok.

– Being a beginner and learning is fun. 

– Sometimes, life doesn’t work out the way that I want it to. Sometimes, it takes me into weird unpredictable directions. But, as Steve Jobs said: “you can’t connect the dots going forward; you can only connect them looking backward.”


 

Expansion of the universe

The expansion of the universe

For the past 5 billion years, the universe has been expanding at an increasing rate. This was first discovered in the 1920s by an astronomer called Edwin Hubble.
The other day, I read about the way Hubble managed to observe the expansion of the universe. I found it fascinating to realise that he was able to draw such a big and important conclusion with the use of simple and easy-to-understand physics.

How Hubble observed the expansion of the universe:

First step

Hubble had to prove that our galaxy isn’t the only one in the universe. At that time, people actually thought that the universe consisted only of the Milky Way (our galaxy). Hubble proved that this wasn’t the case by calculating the distance to variable stars in the universe and discovering that certain stars were more than 900,000 light years from Earth. This distance is of course way beyond our own galaxy. Hubble concluded that other galaxies had to exist.

Calculating the distance to other galaxies

Calculating the distance to stars within our galaxy is fairly simple. Because the earth orbits around the sun, by looking at a star today and then again 6 months from now, astronomers can detect a difference in the viewing angle for the star. With the use of a little bit of trigonometry, the distance from Earth to that star can be calculated. But, a problem occurs when stars are located further than 400 light years from us. They are so far away that, unlike nearby stars, they really do appear fix. In other words, a difference in the viewing angle for the stars can’t be detected.

To calculate the distance to stars in other galaxies, Hubble had to use a method known as brightness measurement. It can be explained this way:

The apparent brightness of a star is a term that describes how bright the star appears to a detector here on Earth. It depends on how much light the star radiates (its luminosity). But, the apparent brightness also depends on how far away the star is (the further, the dimmer it will look).
A simple formula can be imagined from the relationship between the apparent brightness, luminosity and distance of a star. As we already know how to calculate the distance to nearby stars, their luminosity can be worked out simply. Similarly, we could measure the distance to stars in other galaxies if we knew the luminosity of those stars.

This is exactly what Hubble figured out. Knowing that certain types of stars always have the same luminosity, he managed to find such stars in other galaxies. Hubble then used that knowledge to calculate the distance from Earth to those stars. In this way, he worked out the distance from Earth to nine galaxies.

Second step

Hubble not only calculated the distance from Earth to stars in other galaxies but he also spent his time analysing their color. He used a prism to break up the light emitted by stars into its component colors (its spectrum).

Now, you might wonder about the importance of knowing the spectra of stars. It turns out that it’s the only way for us to tell different stars apart. They are so far away that we can’t distinguish their size or shape. The light emitted by stars gives us information about their temperature and about the elements that are present in their atmosphere. That’s a lot of information!

How the spectra of stars showed the expansion of the universe

When Hubble started cataloguing the spectra of stars situated outside of our galaxy, he observed something strange. He found similar characteristic sets of missing colors as for stars in our own galaxy but, this time, they were all shifted toward the red end of the spectrum.

To understand the implications of Hubble’s discovery, it is first important to learn about a phenomenon called the Doppler effect. You might already know that light behaves like a wave (talked about in this post). The term ‘frequency’ describes the number of light waves per second and the different frequencies are what the human eye sees as different colors. The lowest frequencies appear at the red end of the spectrum and the highest frequencies appear at the blue end.

Now, imagine a star situated at a specific distance from you, emitting waves of light at a constant frequency. Suppose that the star suddenly starts moving towards you. The distance between you and that star is diminishing. This means that each light wave takes slightly less time to reach you than the previous wave. So, the number of waves you will receive each second (aka the frequency) will be higher. This corresponds to a shift toward the blue end of the star’s spectrum. Similarly, if the star suddenly moved away from you, the frequency of the waves that you would receive would be lower. This corresponds to a shift toward the red end of the star’s spectrum. The whole phenomenon is known as the Doppler effect.

So, Hubble found out that the stars and galaxies that he was observing were moving away from Earth. Even more surprising was the discovery that the size of a galaxy’s red shift wasn’t random. It was directly proportional to the galaxy’s distance from us. In other words, the further a galaxy is, the faster it is moving away from us.

Dark energy

We all know that gravity is present in the universe. So, how can the universe be expanding? Some other force must also be present in our universe. This force, named “dark energy”, has to counteract gravity and allow for the expansion of the universe. Exactly what this force is and how it operates is still poorly understood. It remains one of the greatest mysteries in science.


 

Learning how to play the guitar: Don’t cry – Guns N’ Roses

This week I learned how to play “Don’t cry” by Guns N’ Roses. There are a few different ways to play this song. I chose to learn the simplest, most basic one. At least for now.

Don’t cry – Guns N’ Roses

You’ll probably notice that I get a bit confused during the chorus. I’m not used to singing, let alone filming myself while singing. And, as you’ll see in the video, I wasn’t in my comfort zone at all during the chorus. Because of this, shyness took over and the song was never finished.

I have a lot of work today and I am leaving for Italy tomorrow which means that the song won’t get much better than this right now. In any case, it’s all about the baby steps 🙂


Here are the other songs that I’ve learned:
Shiver, Lucy Rose
Without me, Mac DeMarco


 

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman is one of the people who inspires me the most. I admire him, not only because he was a brilliant physicist, but mostly because of his attitude to life.

  • I admire his curiosity and creativity. He wanted to understand everything that was going on around him. A simple question such as: “why pasta usually breaks in three rather than two pieces” would be enough. Feynman would spend the rest of the night trying to figure it out. Being wrong wasn’t scary to him. He also wasn’t driven by money or fame. He simply enjoyed finding clever ways to explain processes and things that were happening around him.
  • I admire his ability to communicate effectively. He knew how to simplify complicated notions. He also understood the importance of speaking without jargon. Expressed in his own words:
    “When we speak without jargon, it frees us from hiding behind knowledge we don’t have. Big words and fluffy ‘business speak’ cripples us from getting to the point and passing knowledge to others.”
    His ability to communicate allowed him to share his knowledge and make science accessible and fun for anyone. In fact, the Feynman technique, named after him, is a four step ‘formula’ for learning that he created and followed when he wanted to learn something new. It is now known worldwide, considered a mental model and, said to be very effective.
  • I admire his positivity and magnetic personality. Everyone around him seemed to love and look up to him. I haven’t been fortunate enough to personally meet him, but, I can understand where that admiration comes from. He was a beautiful character. He enjoyed life and knew the importance of love.

The Fantastic Mr.Feynman

The other day, I watched a documentary about Feynman called “The Fantastic Mr. Feynman”. Unexpectedly, at the end, I felt a huge wave of sadness. My mum happened to call me at that moment and, as we talked, I actually burst into tears. Out of nowhere.
I can’t fully explain why. I think that the fact that Feynman isn’t there anymore suddenly dawned on me. Somehow, the world without him seemed a little emptier.


Decartes’ life

Men of Mathematics

In this short video, Freeman Dyson recommends a book called “Men of Mathematics”. The book provides an insight into the lives and contributions of the greatest mathematicians, from Zeno to Poincaré.

Both Freeman Dyson and John Nash, two incredible mathematicians, have spoken about this book. Apparently, reading it encouraged them to pursue Mathematics as a path.
Knowing that “Men of Mathematics” has inspired incredibly smart people who in turn, inspire me, made me want to read it too. I hope that reading about the evolution of Mathematics will help me connect dots between certain areas within the subject and, as a result, make Mathematics as a whole less abstract.

Of course, the book is a product of the times in which it was written (1937). It is Europe-centered as it doesn’t include the lives of great Arabic and Hindu mathematicians. Also, several great female mathematicians have been omitted because they weren’t men. This was indubitably expected with a book title such as “Men of Mathematics”. Nevertheless, I still think there is a lot to learn from the book and I am excited to finish it.

Decartes’ life

Decartes' life

The last chapter I read was about Decartes’ life. Decartes is an important figure in the world of mathematics because he developed the Cartesian or analytic geometry. He basically used algebra to describe geometry. There is more information about his mathematical legacy on this website.

Here are points, from the chapter, that I found interesting:

Morning reflections

As a child, Decartes had a delicate health and needed to rest more than his peers. Because of that, the rector of his school told him to lie in bed as long as he wanted in the morning. He could come to school when he felt like it. Decartes used that opportunity and spent his mornings in bed when he wished to think. Looking back, he remembered those long mornings of reflection as the source of his philosophy and mathematics.

This made me think about an article that I read a few months ago: Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too. In the article, the author argues that creativity and productivity are not a result of endless hours of work. According to him, the most creative and accomplished people only spend a few hours per day working on their projects. Passion and focus is just as important as the amount of time set aside for rest (aka sleeping, going for walks, meditating…) when it comes to success.

It made me reflect on the way that rest has affected me and my creativity. Personally, I know that I have learned a lot more in a single year after school than several school years combined. Could that perhaps be linked to rest and free time? I also believe that the best and most creative ideas I have ever had have arisen in calm environments.
I wonder, is the importance of rest taken seriously enough in our society? Maybe, the educational system and the way that we see work today doesn’t provide enough time for rest – source of reflection and creativity? Similarly, perhaps the overstimulated environment in which we live – (see this post) – doesn’t allow for that rest either?

The 3 dreams and War

I found it interesting to see that so much of history comes down to chance. For example, on November 10, 1619,  Decartes experienced three vivid dreams. They changed the course of his life as he believed that they were of supernatural origin. These dreams provided him with a mission in life: Decartes knew that he had to reform all knowledge – bring it together in one system of thought. He took this quest very seriously and, from that moment on, started his real exploration of mathematics and philosophy. I wonder, what would have happened had he not experienced, remembered or interpreted those three dreams the way that he did?
Similarly, Decartes loved war. He was involved in a numerous amount of wars and could have easily died as a young man.

Isn’t it fascinating to know that so much comes down to single instances? I know this is common sense but still, the chapter about Decartes’ life reminded me about the weirdness of life.

Religion

In spite of his rational skepticism, Decartes was very religious. Sometimes, sciences and religion didn’t go hand in hand. This, however, didn’t trigger any religious doubt in him. Interestingly, Decartes was, for example, convinced of the truth of the Copernican system. He even wrote a book called “Le Monde” which includes a heliocentric view of the solar system. Decartes knew that it contradicted the Church’s teachings but, it was impossible for him to give up either the Church or the Copernican system. He simply hoped and expected that they would both, in some very mystical way, someday, be proved right.

Fun fact

Decartes died in Sweden. He was sent to Stockholm, against his will, to be Queen Kristina’s philosophy teacher. Apparently, the two of them quickly realised that they did not like each other: “she did not like his mechanical philosophy, nor did he appreciate her interest in Ancient Greek”. After only a few lessons, Decartes died of pneumonia.


 

Alice De Schutter, blog post on mental models.

Broadening my set of mental models

Last month, my dad showed me an interesting article about mental models. Mental models can be seen as “the mind’s toolbox for making decisions”. The article highlights the benefits of having as many as possible. According to the author, this leads to clearer thinking.
As I read the article, I realised that one of the reasons I created this blog and enjoy learning about a wide variety of subjects is the fact that it gives me access to new mental models. This, as will be understood through the post, allows me to broaden my understanding of the world.

What are mental models?

A mental model is a concept that can be used to explain different things. For example, supply and demand is a mental model that allows you to understand economics. As you can probably guess, a large amount of models exists. Any one person understands a set of them. They are used as a toolbox for making decisions, solving problems and interpreting the world around us.

These models are useful but aren’t perfect. None of them can explain the immense complexity of any one system within the universe. Not even scientific models:
The motion of objects, for example, can be understood with the help of Classical mechanics. However, Classical mechanics doesn’t explain the motion of extremely small objects (about the size of an atom). A new mental model, known as quantum mechanics, is introduced for that purpose. Similarly, when the objects in question move at velocities close to the speed of light, General relativity becomes necessary (this is explained here).

Why are mental models important?

Understanding a wide variety of mental models is important because it allows you to create a truer picture of how the world works. The article explained this well: “when a certain worldview dominates your thinking, you’ll try to explain every problem you face through that worldview: ‘to the man with only a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail’.”

Here is an example:
Let’s attempt to explain something simple. Ask yourself: “why is Sara eating the waffle”? You might simply say: “because she was hungry”. But, how would a neuroscientist explain the same situation? He would probably respond that neurons in her brain fired and triggered the action. And, what about an evolutionary biologist? His explanation might differ. He would talk about natural selection and the fact that we are programed to eat for survival.
No one here is wrong. “All perspectives hold some truth. None of them contain the complete truth.”

In the future, I will try to make a list of mental models that I learn and add them to this post. Here are other people’s lists: list 1, list 2.

My list of mental models:


Learning how to play the guitar: Without me – Mac DeMarco

I fractured one of my ribs the other day and as a result am not able to do yoga or climb. It is also very cold in Stockholm at the moment. Both these things mean that I am stuck in my room, freezing and in agony, trying to find ways to occupy myself. Prevent myself from getting a little crazy.
Learning how to play the guitar and baking is what I do 90% of my time now. Playing the guitar is  becoming more and more fun. I get a huge amount of satisfaction from simply learning new chords or silly tricks.

Without me – Mac Demarco 

This week I’m trying to understand fingerpicking. I learned that resting the wrist on the guitar, above the strings, improves accuracy when fingerpicking. It prevents you from playing with the elbow which obviously makes the plucking of the strings less precise. The technique has helped me a lot when learning “Without me” by Mac DeMarco. I’m still not sure if I am doing it correctly as I think my wrist should be resting a little more forward on the guitar. I have tried doing that but I can’t seem to find a comfortable spot to place the wrist.

It has been a little hard for me to learn this song because it involves a few things that I had never done before (such as barre chords). I also find it a lot more difficult to follow a good rhythm when fingerpicking rather than strumming.
I know that the song still needs improvement and I am planning on practicing a lot. Hopefully I will post another video in a week or so with an ameliorated version of both this song and “Wish you were here” by Pink Floyd (which is the first song that I learned).


Here are the other songs that I’ve learned:
Shiver, Lucy Rose
Wish you were here, Pink Floyd


 

Advertising shits

“Advertising shits in your head” (no author)

Should replacing advertising billboards with something else be illegal? Would I be considered a criminal if I decided to change them into art? Wanted to add posters that raise political/local issues? Or, simply felt like leaving the page blank? I mean, when did we actually sign up for this constant “visual pollution”?
I don’t remember ever doing that.

Book on advertisement

“Advertising shits in your head”

I came across the pocket size book “Advertising shits in your head” when reading Rob Hopkins review of it on his blog. The book is about advertisement – what it does to our minds, our culture and our planet.

But, what’s so bad with advertisement? Why are messages on pieces of paper detrimental to us?
I think Rob Hopkins put it nicely. He wrote that advertisement harms us because it is “instilling us with extrinsic values”. “Those values that reinforce conformity and a focus on achievement, power, financial success and image”.
Think about it: wouldn’t it be nicer to live in a society where we would instead be encouraged to keep and develop our intrinsic values? “Those founded on affiliation, self-acceptance, community feeling, benevolence and universalism”.
Not only that, I think advertisement also harms us because it adds stimulation to our already overstimulated environment (which goes back to the point I made in one of the posts I wrote last week).

A few places have made the decision to ban public advertisement and instead develop areas for public expression (Sao Paulo in 2007 and Grenoble, France in 2015). I find that extremely cool and wish more places would follow suit.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe this will happen everywhere. I like “Advertising shits in your head” because it provides a way to fight back. Possibilities to use creativity as a vehicle for social change. The book even has an illustrated guide called ‘How to hack into bus stop advertising spaces’.


 

Alice Phoebe Lou

Alice Phoebe Lou

Alice Phoebe Lou has been a big inspiration for me lately. I love that she is independent and strives to use her voice in a positive way. She writes all of her lyrics, started her career by doing lots of street performances, is super sweet, open and brave and seems like a genuinely nice person!

Some videos of her:

Orbit (Live Session)
Q Berlin Questions 2017
(where she talks about the #metoo campaign and her experience as a female musician) – this is another video on the same topic.
Berlin Blues
– Nostalgia


Other inspiring people:
* Alex Honnold
* Kip Thorne


 

blog post on silence

On Silence and Chocolate mousse

Today I spent the day without earphones. Not because I intentionally wanted to but because I couldn’t find them in my room and didn’t have time to look more thoroughly as I happened to be late for my bus. As I left, I remember thinking that my day was doomed. I was going to be away from 5:30am to 4:00pm and not having earphones meant that… Actually, I don’t really know what it meant. I can’t remember the last time that I left my place without earphones. All I knew was that there would be a lot of silence and that the day would most likely pass a lot slower than usual. I wasn’t excited for that.

It turns out that I was right. My day wasn’t the greatest: I lost my bus card, felt pain in my arm throughout my yoga practice, didn’t have enough food with me to keep me going through the day and had my 4th nosebleed of the week.
But, to my surprise, not having earphones made the day a lot better than it would have been otherwise. It felt good to not constantly be surrounded by a flow of information – podcasts – or music and allow myself to be in the company of myself. It is true that the day passed a lot slower than usual but, not in a bad way.

Silence felt nice.

I wonder why not using earphones isn’t something I have done before. Maybe it can simply be explained by the human tendency to do things that are familiar – the tendency to stay in our comfort zone. Just like we tend to always sit in the same spot or take the same way home. But, it also made me think about a video that I saw not too long ago and that I unfortunately can’t find anymore.

The video talked about how our capitalistic society encourages the creation of products that stimulate us but offer very little ‘nourishment’. I mean, isn’t the creation of a product which use makes us feel like we are fulfilling a basic human need the best business idea? Because the more you believe that you need a certain product, the more you’ll use it, right? And, what if the product stimulates you or gives you more pleasure than what was used before to fulfill that basic human need? Wouldn’t the former ‘nourishing’ product eventually be replaced by the more stimulating one?
Just look at some of the big industries of today: the food industry that encourages food stimulation (flavour/sugar/…) and forgets about nutrition, the porn industry that takes sexual stimulation out of the context of a relationship, or social media that profits from our basic need for social interaction and eventually makes us addicted to silly notifications and likes.
I think that in the end, all of the stimulating products that make us believe that we are fulfilling some basic human need but don’t actually ‘nourish’ us eventually make us feel more hollow than before – less alive.

Our capitalist society might not even be at blame here. Maybe it’s just us. Nowadays, if you have a little bit of money, you can have access to anything you want. We’ve never been in such a position before and we are not built for that. From an evolutionary perspective, craving sweet things was great because it meant that we were going to search for sweet fruits and therefore not die of malnutrition or hunger. But, now we live in a completely different world and because we haven’t adapted to it, perhaps it’s in our own responsibility as individuals to know when it’s enough.

Maybe, overstimulation has conditioned me to feel uncomfortable in quiet settings with myself. I’ve never really thought about it because I’ve always seen myself as being pretty good at being alone. I spend a lot of time by myself and enjoy it. But, it is true that I am rarely doing absolutely nothing when alone. Perhaps I should try doing that more?
When I think about it, one of the big reasons as to why I love practicing ashtanga yoga every morning is the fact that I get two hours of uninterrupted silence. Time to listen to my breath and take care of myself. Actually, the practice of Pratyahara (= withdrawal of the senses) is a big part of yoga philosophy and it is exactly about that.

 


On another note, I just discovered that I have enough ingredients at home to make chocolate mousse. Apparently, the water used to store chickpeas and certain other beans can also be used as an egg replacement. That water is called aquafaba and it is magic! When you mix aquafaba it foams exactly like egg whites do. I find this pretty exciting and am about to make chocolate mousse out of:

Vegan chocolate mousse

* Aquafaba
* Melted dark chocolate
* Some sweetener (maple syrup?)

Here’s a little video explaining how to do the recipe.

Voilà! Life can’t be that bad after all.