Nov 252014

Now let me get this straight. You are a teenage thug who thinks it’s okay to use your bulk and strength to commit strongarm robbery. You take this a step too far when you encounter and threaten a cop who, in fear of his life, uses his firearm and kills you. And then you become… a national hero? A symbol of racial oppression in America?

I am not blind to the fact that racism remains prevalent in the USA. I know very well that a lot of the criticism of President Obama boils down to the simple fact that he is one uppity negro, an unforgivable crime in the eyes of too many. I understand all too well that despite exceptional success stories like that of Mr. Obama, the United States has a long way to go when it comes to eliminating racial prejudice. And I followed the news about the inept brutality of the police in Ferguson, including the arbitrary detention and arrest of reporters, a prominent Canadian journalist among them.

But Michael Brown was no saint. He was not a victim of racism. Nor was he a “gentle giant”. He was a thug who lived by, and died by the use of force. I am not saying that shoplifting, or even strongarm robbery, deserve the death penalty, but when you threaten an armed police officer, don’t be surprised if he reaches for his gun (as he has every right to do.)

And yes, Mr. Brown threatened the police officer. The grand jury found that it is so, and the physical evidence supports that conclusion. We may never know exactly what happened, but Mr. Brown’s DNA was found inside the police car and on the officer’s weapon, and unless you believe the cockamamie tale that the officer went berserk and decided to pull his much bigger opponent into the car through the car window, there is only one plausible way this could have happened: the way officer Wilson described it.

Unfortunately it was clear from the beginning that only one outcome would quiet the unruly masses: an indictment followed by a swift conviction. But I don’t believe in lynch mobs. As Barack Obama himself said, America is a land of the rule of law.

And just to be clear: I am not Michael Brown. I am not a thug, a petty criminal. I do not use my physical strength to rob convenience stores. And this has nothing to do with skin color. Nor do I believe that rioting, looting, and setting fire to businesses is the right answer to racial injustice.

 Posted by at 10:37 pm
Nov 142014

Kim Lane Scheppele is a professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University. She is also an expert on constitutional law in Hungary. Her writings frequently appeared in publications such as The New York Times.

A few days ago, Dr. Scheppele gave a video interview to an English-language Hungarian newspaper, the Budapest Beacon. In the interview, she explains how, in her opinion, Hungary can no longer be considered a constitutional democracy: how the system of checks and balances has been gutted and a constitution more resembling the country’s 1949 Stalinist constitution than the supposedly “communist” 1989 constitution it was intended to replace, was enacted unilaterally by a ruling party enjoying a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority.

Dr. Scheppele is not some liberal hack. She is an internationally renowned scholar. Her opinions are not arbitrary. Unfortunately, I do not expect to see meaningful change to happen anytime soon in the country of my birth, and I don’t think anything Dr. Scheppele says can alter this sad fact.

 Posted by at 8:24 pm
Nov 122014

Judging by the enthusiastic reaction I just saw moments ago on CBC Newsworld, the lander Philae, part of the Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, has landed successfully.

This is big. This is the first time a man-made device landed on a comet. It is called “primary exploration”.

It is also big for the European Space Agency. Rosetta is a major deep space mission: the spacecraft spent ten years traveling to this comet.

All in all, wonderful news.

 Posted by at 11:12 am
Nov 112014

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada.

Unlike the Remembrance Days of recent years, today is perfect. The Sun is shining, the temperature is going to hit double digits. It is a sparkling, beautiful, almost unnaturally splendid late autumn day.

The combination of exceptional weather and the recent death of Cpl. Cirillo, gunned down last month while guarding the very memorial where Remembrance Day ceremonies will take place, will bring exceptional crowds.

But today is not a day of celebration. It is a day to remember.

To remember the War to End All Wars, which began exactly 100 years ago. Far from ending all wars, it claimed nearly 40 million lives, and redrew the maps of Europe, laying the groundwork for another, even more devastating war less than a quarter century later. To remember all the dead: not just Canadians, not just Allied soldiers, indeed, not only just soldiers but also civilians who suffered and died in even greater numbers.

To remember, for instance, my wife’s great-grandfather, who served in the Austro-Hungarian army at one of the bloodiest fronts of the Great War, along the Isonzo river in present-day Slovenia. His little notebook [in Hungarian] detailing, often in verse, his horrendous experience in the trenches, was found among the papers left behind by my wife’s father when he died.

To remember my great uncle Béla, who taught me to play chess when I was little and who was the first among elder family members who awakened my interest in science and mathematics. Uncle Béla served in both world wars and (if I remember family lore correctly) even spent some time as a POW. A memento, a stringless balalaika, hung on the wall of their tiny, bathroom-less working-class flat in central Budapest, where he lived with his wife, aunt Flóra, until his death.

To remember my grandfather on my mother’s side, whom I never met, as he passed away a year before I was born. He spent some horrendous months as an army engineer near the Don river; he only escaped the devastating defeat of the Second Hungarian Army (and thus, likely death or long-term captivity in Stalin’s gulag) because he was allowed to return to Budapest after contracting pneumonia. Nonetheless, what he went through there probably contributed to his declining health and the massive stroke or brain hemorrhage that struck him just a few years later and left him severely disabled for the last 15 years of his life. He was several years younger than I am at present when his life effectively came to an end.

His wife, my grandmother, was responsible for keeping a family of six (including a newborn baby and two preschoolers, one of them my Mom) alive and fed through the siege of Budapest, when the family spent an entire winter in a basement bomb shelter, even as she herself was coping with illness that nearly took her life.

As I am writing down these thoughts, I am listening to the musical Johnny Johnson, by Kurt Weill. Weill, well-known for his Threepenny Opera, is one of my favorite 20th century composers. He escaped Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933, to live the rest of his all too short life (he was only 50 when he died) in the United States. It was here that he composed Johnny Johnson, an astonishing anti-war musical. One of my favorite songs has a German and an American priest preaching in canon on the battlefront to their respective troops: one in German, one in English, but preaching the exact same words. But perhaps the most heart-rending scene is at the very end: the protagonist, Johnny Johnson, is now a toymaker selling his “toys for nice little girls and boys” on the street. Unfortunately, nobody is buying: they are more interested in the speech of a politician just a block away, calling for another war.

The title of Johnny Johnson was inspired by the fact the name appeared on United States casualty rolls more often than any other.

 Posted by at 8:49 am
Nov 092014

Earlier today, someone I know shared a video on Facebook. The video is just a text slide show, retelling a story that, according to, has been around for almost a century.

Condensed version: an atheist university professor keeps ridiculing religion year after year in his class, “demonstrating” that God does not exist by dropping a piece of chalk, which shatters into pieces as God fails to intervene. When finally, just as a young man stands up to him, the demonstration fails (the chalk slips from the professor’s fingers and does not break), the humiliated professor flees the classroom, leaving the young man sharing his faith in Jesus with his fellow students for the next half hour. The video version then laments on people’s lack of faith and how everyone wants to go to heaven but so few are willing to do what it takes.

I felt compelled to reply to the post of my Facebook friend. I told him that as a committed atheist, I would call the professor of this story a much bigger fool than he thought his religious students were. He basically turned his atheism into a matter of faith… a religion, in other words, with himself the firebrand preacher.

The chalk story reminds me of the joke about a deeply religious person who is caught in a flood. When rescuers come to his door, he refuses the help, “God will help me”, he says. When later, he had to climb to the top floor of his house to escape the waters and rescuers in a boat arrive at the window, he once again rejects their assistance. Finally, when a helicopter tries to rescue him from his rooftop, he again says no. Needless to say, he dies and finds himself in heaven before God. He asks, “God, I feared you, loved you, prayed to you all my life, why didn’t you help me in my deepest need?” God answers, “I sent you rescuers on foot, I sent you a boat, I even sent you a bleeping helicopter, what more do you want?”

The morale of the story is not that God does parlor tricks, as in the chalk story. (That just kind of ruined it for me, to be honest. Is the Christian God really just a stage magician?)

The morale of the story is that if there had been true believers in that classroom, and I mean true believers, not just timid, half-committed people practicing a form of Pascal’s Wager in the vain hope for a better chance in the afterlife, one of them would have stood up and caught the chalk long ago. And then, perhaps even the half-hour sermon would not have been necessary afterwards to convince others of the purity and depth of his faith.

And yes, I am a committed atheist. It does not stop me from respecting, even defending other people’s right to their faith, though I have no use for it. And no, everyone does not want to go to heaven. I have no need for an imaginary kindergarten afterlife. I just want to make the most of this one life here on Earth, as a decent (I hope) human being. Which includes not ridiculing others for their faith, even if I myself find the subject of that faith somewhat ridiculous.

 Posted by at 9:26 am
Nov 082014

Once again my country of birth, Hungary, made it to the cover of both the North American and Asian editions of The New York Times.

And not for a good reason.

The article laments that, 25 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Hungary, which was back then at the forefront of the transition from communism to democracy, is now turning away form Western values. That the prime minister, the same Mr. Orban who once played a leading role in that transition, now rejects Western values and preaches “illiberal democracy”, citing countries like Russia or Turkey as worthy examples.

Such criticisms are routinely rejected by supporters of Mr. Orban as “misguided”, a product of a Western media that “only listens to liberal critics”. And this plays well with an audience that is accustomed to the notion of national victimhood. Hungary is seen by many Hungarians as a victim throughout history. The country was a victim of the Paris-Versailles peace treaties. A victim of Germany and national socialism. A victim of communism. And now, a victim of Brussels’ new “colonialism”.

Even the national anthem is all about victimhood: “Fate, who for so long did’st frown / Bring him happy times and ways / Atoning sorrow hath weighed down / Sins of past and future days.”

Maybe one day the focus in Hungary will shift from victimhood to responsibility. For being accountable for one’s actions. Maybe that day, Hungary will no longer be easy pray to populist demagogues like Mr. Orban.

But I am not holding my breath.

 Posted by at 9:41 am
Nov 042014

Standard_Model_of_Elementary_Particles.svgMany popular science books and articles mention that the Standard Model of particle physics, the model that unifies three of the fundamental forces and describes all matter in the form of quarks and leptons, has about 18 free parameters that are not predicted by the theory.

Very few popular accounts actually tell you what these parameters are.

So here they are, in no particular order:

  1. The so-called fine structure constant, \(\alpha\), which (depending on your point of view) defines either the coupling strength of electromagnetism or the magnitude of the electron charge;
  2. The Weinberg angle or weak mixing angle \(\theta_W\) that determines the relationship between the coupling constant of electromagnetism and that of the weak interaction;
  3. The coupling constant \(g_3\) of the strong interaction;
  4. The electroweak symmetry breaking energy scale (or the Higgs potential vacuum expectation value, v.e.v.) \(v\);
  5. The Higgs potential coupling constant \(\lambda\) or alternatively, the Higgs mass \(m_H\);
  6. The three mixing angles \(\theta_{12}\), \(\theta_{23}\) and \(\theta_{13}\) and the CP-violating phase \(\delta_{13}\) of the Cabibbo-Kobayashi-Maskawa (CKM) matrix, which determines how quarks of various flavor can mix when they interact;
  7. Nine Yukawa coupling constants that determine the masses of the nine charged fermions (six quarks, three charged leptons).

OK, so that’s the famous 18 parameters so far. It is interesting to note that 15 out of the 18 (the 9 Yukawa fermion mass terms, the Higgs mass, the Higgs potential v.e.v., and the four CKM values) are related to the Higgs boson. In other words, most of our ignorance in the Standard Model is related to the Higgs.

Beyond the 18 parameters, however, there are a few more. First, \(\Theta_3\), which would characterize the CP symmetry violation of the strong interaction. Experimentally, \(\Theta_3\) is determined to be very small, its value consistent with zero. But why is \(\Theta_3\) so small? One possible explanation involves a new hypothetical particle, the axion, which in turn would introduce a new parameter, the mass scale \(f_a\) into the theory.

Finally, the canonical form of the Standard Model includes massless neutrinos. We know that neutrinos must have mass, and also that they oscillate (turn into one another), which means that their mass eigenstates do not coincide with their eigenstates with respect to the weak interaction. Thus, another mixing matrix must be involved, which is called the Pontecorvo-Maki-Nakagawa-Sakata (PMNS) matrix. So we end up with three neutrino masses \(m_1\), \(m_2\) and \(m_3\), and the three angles \(\theta_{12}\), \(\theta_{23}\) and \(\theta_{13}\) (not to be confused with the CKM angles above) plus the CP-violating phase \(\delta_{\rm CP}\) of the PMNS matrix.

So this is potentially as many as 26 parameters in the Standard Model that need to be determined by experiment. This is quite a long way away from the “holy grail” of theoretical physics, a theory that combines all four interactions, all the particle content, and which preferably has no free parameters whatsoever. Nonetheless the theory, and the level of our understanding of Nature’s fundamental building blocks that it represents, is a remarkable intellectual achievement of our era.

 Posted by at 2:49 pm