The Commuter Challenge

3 February 2012

The February 2012 Challenge

by CC @ 07:50

Write an essay, between 2000 and 4000 words long, about something you think is interesting. Show the rest of us why we should consider it interesting too. It can be anything from a genial explication of science in the style of Isaac Asimov, or a gonzo drug-fueled screed in the style of Hunter S. Thompson.

The Results

Brian’s essay: Quantum Billiard Balls.

Ryan’s essay: Forged Autographs.


  1. When I presented this challenge, Ryan suggested that it was about as challenging as “wear your favorite shirt on two non-consecutive days.” It’s true that I hadn’t actually considered the fact that it was relatively easy, as “challenges” go. But sometimes I see the Commuter Challenge as also being a way to do things that we don’t do but should. This was an example of the latter.

    I owe a measurable fraction of my youthful education to people like Martin Gardner and Isaac Asimov (and more recently to the many scientists who write blogs). I’ve always thought that it would be fun to do that sort of thing on some sort of regular basis, and furthermore that it would be a worthwhile exercise, even if no one ever read them but myself. But I’ve never actually made the effort to do it. Now I can say that I’ve done it at least once.

    The subject of my essay is one that rattled around in my head for a bit many years ago, which I dug out for this challenge. Over the years I’ve developed numerous ways to visualize subatomic particles while reading through various popularized explanations of quantum physics. I liked this one because it actually made it easy to imagine how a particle could appear to be dispersed in a cloud of probability without becoming completely alien in nature. Although it’s not at all true, I have a suspicion that it does share some qualities with quantum fields, which is apparently what almost every particle really is. I’m currently reading a book that looks like it might get into field theory near the end; maybe if I understand it I’ll be able to answer my question.

    My only real regret with this essay is that it should have included more hard information about actual quantum mechanics, instead of being completely focused on my interesting-but-wrong model. Quantum mechanics is not a small subject, however, and dealing with it in any detail without getting bogged down would have required more time and effort than I naively allotted for it.

    by Brian — 1 March 2012 @ 19:50

  2. I ran out of time on this one. I hand-wrote a lot of text during some of my work trips throughout the month and then cut the draft down before sitting down to type it out, but I didn’t actually get around to typing until a few hours before it was due so it came out sloppy and disconnected. If I’d given myself more time I could have written much more and much better about the topic, and I’d planned to end it on a philosophical note about whether or not autographs should really be considered valuable at all, but my Commuter Challenge modus operandi (which involves thinking about the Challenge all month and leaving all the actual work until the last day) really didn’t work for me this month.

    by RyanF — 1 April 2012 @ 13:23