In Pursuit of Laziness

Manish Goregaokar's blog

Colophon: Waiter, There Are Pions in My Blog Post!

Posted by Manish Goregaokar on August 03, 2022 in meta, physics, writing

I’ve added a couple new styling elements to my blog and I make use of them extensively in upcoming posts, I thought I’d talk a bit about them because I expect people will have questions.

The main thing is that I have nice aside styling.

Asides are things that look like this.

The actual color scheme comes from the asides used in bikeshed, the tool used to generate Web specifications and C++ spec proposals. I edit a couple WebXR specs and used to read specs very often when I worked on browsers; I like the styling they use.

I also think it’s kinda funny to get readers do a double-take when they see familiar styling out of context.

Besides the “example” and “note” ones shown above, there’s also an “issue” one.

Figure out a way to include an example of an “issue” aside in this post that works in context like the “note” and “example” ones.

These asides are useful for calling out supplemental information; and add to my existing repertoire of footnotes, em dashes, semicolons, and parentheses as a nonlinear writing tool.

Speech bubble for character Negative pion
Manish, you’re burying the lede.

Oh, right. Fine. The pions.

I’ve also introduced three similarly styled “character discussion” asides that show a discussion with a pion. There’s a “positive” one that’s generally helpful, a “negative” one that’s grumpy, and a “confused” (neutrally charged) one that asks questions.

Having little characters participate in the blog post works really well; it gives a sense of flow to the articles. I’m also hoping it makes them easier to read, breaking up otherwise dense technical content with lighter conversational content1. Asking questions through them give the reader an anchor point for themselves if they’re similarly confused, without me making any assumption that the reader did or didn’t understand a part.

They’re also yet another way for me to write nonlinearly, and I love writing nonlinearly.

Adding interlocutors to my blog was extremely inspired by other people: Amos has Cool Bear, and Xe has Mara, both of which serve similar purposes. While Alex doesn’t quite have interlocutors, their use of ISO 7010 icons for asides gave me the idea to use something relevant to my interests while picking characters.

Speech bubble for character Confused pion
Okay but why pions? Scratch that, what is a pion?

You’re a pion!

Speech bubble for character Confused pion
You know what I meant!

Okay, okay.

So a pion is a type of subatomic particle, and is part of the mechanism holding the nucleus of an atom together. There are three of them, π0 , π+ , and π, with the positive and negative ones being antiparticles of each other.

As for why I’ve chosen that particle in particular, explaining that requires some history first.

Back when we only knew about protons, neutrons, and electrons, physicists were attempting to figure out how atomic nuclei stay together. They’re made of protons and neutrons, which means they’re just a lot of positively and neutrally changed thingies crammed into a tight space. There’s not much reason for that to want to stay together, but there’s plenty of reason for it to come apart. This is rather concerning to beings made out of atoms, like physicists.

To resolve this, physicists theorized the existence of the pion2, a type of particle that is exchanged between protons and neutrons in the nucleus and forms a mechanism for carrying force.

Speech bubble for character Positive pion

Why “exchanging particles” works to carry force is a complicated topic (and “exchanging particles” is a very simplistic characterization) that would be very hard to explain here, but you can read up on “force carriers” in quantum field theory if you’re interested.

A useful example is that photons are force carriers for the electromagnetic force, which is why you can make radio waves (made up of photons) by messing with electromagnetic fields.

And when physicists think there’s a new particle, of course they go looking for it. And they did!

… but they found something else entirely.

Bear in mind, this was not the heyday of particle discovery when there was a new particle being discovered every Tuesday. Physicists knew about protons, neutrons, electrons, and probably pions, and were justifiably surprised when a completely different particle came knocking. Instead of having the properties they expected for the pion, it was basically like a heavier electron.

The physicist I. I. Rabi famously remarked “Who ordered that?” when they figured out what had happened. There was no reason for such a particle to exist, they had this nice consistent model of the atom that needed four kinds of particle and they found this fifth one just floating around, not really doing anything.

This particle was the muon, and this story is why I use a Greek μ as my avatar everywhere3. Given this history, the pion feels like a very natural choice as a foil in blog posts I write.

Furthermore, there are three of them, which lets me use them for different purposes! One for “positive” commentary, one for “negative” commentary, and a third “confused” one for questions.

Speech bubble for character Positive pion
The neutral pion being “confused” actually works really well because while π+ (and π) have straightforward quark representations of an up and antidown quark (and a down and an antiup quark for π), π0 is a superposition between either an up and antiup quark or a down and antidown quark.

I can’t wait for people to get to see more of these in my upcoming posts; I really enjoyed writing with them!

Speech bubble for character Confused pion
One last question, are these supposed to be three characters or one character with different moods?

You tell me.

  1. I’m reminded of how a lot of people don’t enjoy reading Tolkien because he spends pages describing, like, one tree, as opposed to most fiction which has plenty of conversational content. Nonfiction books (and blog posts) have the wall-of-description property by default so spending time on improving this makes a lot of sense to me. 

  2. At the time, they called them “mesons”, which is currently the name of a general class of particles which pions belong to. 

  3. My name starting with an M and my interest in writing systems is a part of it, but the main reason is that I really like this story and this kind of thing is what got me into physics in the first place.