Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Harvard Physics Professor shatters Women's speed record running across America

Screen shot of the Outside Magazine article published Nov. 21, 2023.

Jenny Hoffman is an over-achiever.  She's both a record setting ultra-marathon runner and an award-winning PhD professor of Physics at Harvard.  She just completed a certified Fastest Known Time transit of the US via the same route that Pete Kostelnick ran in 2016.  Here's a link to the Outside Magazine article covering Pete's record, written by the same author as above (Martin Fritz Huber).

Jenny has unwittingly managed to combine two of my core interests—quantum physics and traveling continuous long distances on foot, and this post is as much about her accomplishment as it is about her reaction to it vis-a-vis her Physics career.  In an online Physics Today article covering the achievement, she offers the following quote:

“Running is a good balance for physics,” says Hoffman, who got into running in seventh grade and into ultrarunning—covering distances longer than marathons—when she was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. In physics, she explains, luck plays a large role in success and failure: “Does your cryostat leak?” for example. In running, she says, “there is more correlation between hard work and success. The numbers are what they are. You finish in a certain time. And there is no anonymous peer reviewer who will undermine that. It’s good for my mental health to have a pursuit that is more clearly merit based and fact based.”

This floored me, and it bears repeating: Traveling on foot is more Merit-based and Fact-based than the study of Physics.

The scientific process that establishes 'facts' is indeed a pretty tortuous one.  I know this first-hand from my own 25-year career at NASA writing and publishing peer-reviewed papers for scientific journals.  Traveling on foot is just simple, pure, raw, and easy to prove.  The FKT certification of Jenny's run required her to provide a GPS track, some photos and other documentation, but the GPS track is by far the most important.  Anything can be faked, but, as Jenny says in the Outside Magazine article:

FKT.com just asks for the specific GPX files and, frankly, I think that’s the strongest evidence you can have. Guinness imposes these additional requirements, like written witness statements. I got them all, but that would be really easy to fake. Just make up some names. Guinness also requires ten minutes of video every day. Again, that’s easy to fake: I could video myself leaving the RV, get ten minutes of video, and then sleep in the RV all day. So I don’t think that those additional requirements actually add anything to the evidence.”

GPS tracks can be faked, too.  But it's a helluva lot of work to fake GPS-tagged photos if they are regularly taken and also contain visual cues about the location, and personal daily accounts posted in real time.  I have my own certified FKT record for my double thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, which combined GPS tracks and tagged photos with daily posts on this blog.  Jenny went the extra mile and also carried a live tracking device and is jumping through all those hoops that are required to establish her feat as a Guinness World Record.  

Peer review in the world of Science goes far beyond what Guinness requires for a world record.  Yes, the system can be flawed, and fake science results sometimes get published.  But over the long term, such frauds are almost always caught.  The review process is the best method humanity has come up with to establish what we call 'facts' or 'truth'.  ***And yet ... 

Here on this blog, I have been discussing Physics topics at great length, many in the same field (the bizarre world of quantum mechanics) that Jenny works in, and I try to take pains to identify what I believe can be tested through experiment and ultimately peer reviewed and published.  ***But ... the amazing thing about Quantum Physics and the frontiers of modern science and mathematics these days is that there is a fundamental blur at the end of the scientific and logical process.  Facts and Truth, it turns out, do not stand on a firm foundation that we can call 'Reality'.  Rather, our own experience plays a critical role.  Even Einstein, late in his life (in an article he wrote for the April 1950 issue of Scientific American [Vol. 182, no. 4, page 17]) has confirmed this:

Experience alone can decide on truth.

This utterly fascinates me, and I've spent a lot of time exploring this.  I do not go those further steps to do the proposed experiments or to submit papers for peer review.  I'm simply having fun in my retirement years with the Philosophy of the origins of or universe and of reality in general.

So ... I'm posting this remarkable news about Jenny breaking the women's record by more than a week over the previous record-holder's time as much because I dream of achieving such epic feats myself, but because her life resonates with me in a much bigger-picture sense.  I wonder if she ever dabbles in Genealogy.  She has three children, and obviously a remarkable genome.  What I can attempt to prove (the free WikiTree web site is especially good for this) is whether there is a provable connection between Jenny and me, and if so, how many degrees of separation.  I bet there is.  We are, in the end, all related.

Genealogy requires no specialized degree or peer review, but there's plenty of rigorous research, even science, at the root of good quality Genealogical work.  Because of its intrinsic factual basis, yet also because it touches on the origins of reality itself (the origin of life), Genealogy is the third of my recent trifecta (or Triathlon) of active interests.

Ultimately this post is to serve notice that nearly all blog posts coming from me from now on are likely to focus on one of these three topics:  The philosophy-science interface, Family roots and the origin of life, and long-distance travel on foot.  All three are worthwhile journeys and I envision each of them as a heroic quest.  I hope you'll follow along.

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