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bit of a ramble on language and thought

March 18, 2008

Such small topics for a “bit of a ramble”….

We’re learning this electronic structure method, Density Functional Theory (DFT) in our quantum class this quarter, and I’ve noticed a theme among all the writings about it.  No one seems to be able to write about it clearly.  It’s one big mess of awkward grammar and messy organization, wherever I go: in our textbook, in our prof’s book about it, on Wikipedia, or elsewhere online.  Really really hard to learn.
One thing I noticed is that people who do DFT (except for my prof) are for the most part not native English speakers.  Aside from the educational implications in that sentence, I’ve been thinking about why it is they have so many problems writing.  We’ve got some international guys in our program, and it’s interesting to see the difference between their writing and speaking.  While heavily accented, they speak from passibly  well to more grammatically correct than many Americans.  That’s speech though.  All of them deteriorate in writing.  I read a paper of Yang’s the other day for his optics class, and, while technically correct in most places, his style was so awkward at times that I had to stop myself from laughing.  At first I was very confused at this difference, because he doesn’t have that problem in speaking, but what I’ve realized is the huge gap between how we write and how we speak.  I’d never give a lecture in the form of this paragraph; it’d be stylistically much different.  We use more slang speaking, sure, but beyond that the structure is less formal.  I think even word choice between writing and speaking is different.  In conclusion: this is why I couldn’t pass my writing assignments back in French 232.

When I started chemistry, everything seemed amazing and physically relevant.  Class was centered around lab, and it was easy to see the concepts we were learning.  As I advanced further, though, things got further and further from the real world.  By the time I got my BS, it seemed like I’d continue on forever into mathematical obscurity, never again doing anything which I could explain to my parents.
Things seem to be coming back though.  Finally, I know enough to start explaining things.  Given a few simple facts about a molecule, I can use thermodynamics to calculate boiling points or vapor pressure, or use quantum mechanics to predict a substance’s color and properties on interaction with light.  Granted, it’s not fantastically relevant information, but it’s sorta cool.  Makes me feel like I really am learning something, which I’m glad of, because everyone else seems convinced that we’re going no where.

Grr why hasn’t my Amazon order shipped yet?  I know it’s free shipping, but dangit, I want it to arrive.  I blame you.  *glares*
Okay I need to stop now.  Quantum will not learn itself, and I need to rock out this test tomorrow.

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