Twofish's Blog

July 24, 2006

Managing my physics crack addiction

Here is a neuroscience paper that should explain a lot about me:

Biederman, I., & Vessel, E. A. (2006) Perceptual pleasure and the brain. American Scientist, 94, 247-253.

It’s about how looking at certain images stimulates opiate receptors in the brain.

In other words, when I run my supernova simulations or work on QuantLib, the *exact* same things are happening in my brain as when a crack or heroin addict shoots up with the stuff. Thinking about the effects of neutrino mass on pair production using tau neutrinos produces *exactly* the same neurochemical “high” that joggers feel or that crack addicts feel. And the rush of opiates produces a physical addiction.

Lots of things should start to make sense. Like why when I think about physics, I can muster scary amounts of energy and small amounts of sleep, but I get ***extremely*** irritable. When I was at the MIT reunion, my wife and I were getting into fights very often, because I was annoyed that she wouldn’t let me get my “crack.” For that matter, the sleep wake habits of your typical MIT physics student should make sense (small amounts of sleep for long periods of time then crash). It should also make sense why investment banks *love* physics and mathematics Ph.D.’s, and most importantly, I it explains why I started having these weird and bizarre feelings, once I realized that fathering a certain woman’s children was the *only* chance I’ve ever realistically had of getting a steady and reliable source of “crack” . (Read the other entries in the blogs about the “fairy princess” and some of the weird consequences of academic hiring) “Physics crack” can be extremely expensive. A particle accelerator (a.k.a. a big crack house) can cost several billion dollars.

If you see me as a “crack addict” and not as a “smart computing machine” then you will have a much better idea of how I am, and why I am doing what I’m doing. If you look at me as someone who is dispassionately doing a job like a robot, you have *no* idea the intensity of the feelings and emotions that I have when I do physics. If you see me as a “crack addict,” you start realizing what my world *feels* like, and the scary intensity of my feelings.
But, and this is the key point. It is not a “disease to be cured” but an “addiction to be managed.”

You change neurochemistry so that people don’t get a “physics high” then you’ve just destroyed Einstein and Newton and every other physicist or mathematician out there. We are all “crack addicts” The fact that astrophysicists are willing to take just extremely low paying post-doc positions is *exactly* the same reason why crack addicts are willing to steal just about anything to pay for their supply.

The fact that “astrophysics” is “crack” is neither good or bad, but it does give some insights which I hope can help people (like me) make intelligent decisions.

Whoever controls my supply of “crack” literally controls me. Someone who can turn on and off the supply of opiates to my brain can literally turn me into their slave (which explains a lot of the unhealthy power relationships in academia.) I’m willing to give that level of control over me to my wife. (My wife in fact does a good job of keeping from getting too much “crack.”) I’m not willing to give anywhere near that amount of control to my employer. This is part of the reason that I work on open source software. It means that I have a stash of “crack” that I control, and which no one can take away from me.

I also have to be careful about my environment. My brain is very different now than it was when I was 19, because it’s had the effects of fifteen more years of crack addiction.

One thing that I found that I had to be very careful about is how much time I spend on the MIT campus because MIT is for me the world’s ultimate crack house. I love being on campus and I didn’t realize until I went back how wonderful it felt to be there. My opiate receptors are just flying back and forth. My wife hated it. And she had reason to since I was showing the standard signs of crack addiction.

One thing that I is true about my current job, is that the type of programming I do seems to stimulate different neural receptors or stimulate them in a different way. I don’t know exactly what is happening (but I suspect that if would be obvious once someone does some research on this) but I feel different parts of my brain working when I do maintainence coding. I call it “cold programming” rather than “hot programming.” I suspect that this type of programming seems to provide some steady small supplies of opiates, rather than massive bursts, and that causes less irritability. Codeine rather than heroin.
But in deciding what jobs to do and what places to go, I have to keep in mind that I’m managing a “physics crack addiction.” The two non-negotiables is that I’m not willing to ruin my health and I’m not willing to ruin my family, and given the intensity of the things that go on in my head, this is actually going to be very, very hard to do. I suspect that as I get older, it will even get harder to do, and one reason I’m posting so much in the hopes that people younger than me will get something useful is that I’m really interested in how older people have managed their “physics crack addictions.”

It also has some profound public policy implications. I’m not only a “crack user”, I’m also a “crack dealer.” As someone who tries to be science teacher, I’m trying to get people hooked on “physics crack.” I think that this is probably a good thing for society, but people need to realize how powerful the forces that are unleashed are, so that we can make sensible decisions. If we create large numbers of people who are hooked on “physics crack” and have no good mechanism for them to get their fix, then it is going to be very bad for society.

But the first step to managing an addiction is to realize that it exists, and I’m hoping that the realization that “physics is crack” is going to provide some useful insights about what people should do.



  1. I completely agree, to the extent that I believed somewhat must have wrote something about this addiction online. I proceeded to Google ‘physics addict’ which led me to this article. Also smart people are the best at rationalizing their addictions into something morally and socially acceptable.

    Comment by David — August 10, 2007 @ 9:32 pm

  2. I wish I can get hooked on Physics crack. Is it possible to force yourself to be hooked? lol. I am curious about Physics, but I am nowhere near the level of addiction that you described here.

    Comment by asdf — October 24, 2008 @ 4:50 am

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