Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Physics Journalism

It has been my painful duty, at times to denounce   egregious examples in the sort of press that ought to know better, of tawdry journalism popularizing physics, particularly when that noble science is dragooned into an attack on faith and free will.   As antidote to this, I have principally cited popular works by first-rate physicists who happen also to be first-rate writers:  in the first rank,  Feynman and Weinberg, closely followed by Heisenberg and Gamow.   But indeed, there are shining examples from within the ranks of journalists themselves.
I have mentioned Jim Holt.  And now it is my pleasure to have encountered an excellent history by Ann Finkbeiner, The Jasons (2006), an account of a kind of “Tiger Team” of scientists (initially  entirely physicists) who advised the US Government on matters of great gravity, during the dawn of the nuclear age.  It has been my privilege to have known a couple of these personally (and to have in some sense been on the fringes of this milieu, from my birth in Oak Ridge, to a physical chemist specializing in uranium, to a stint as adjunct faculty at one of the principle institutions she mentions).  It is a tale very much worth telling.

After sociologically interesting introductory material, the first chapter goes over the old ground of Alamogordo and its aftermath.  To this reader, that is extremely familiar material:  yet so sure is her touch, that it is alive anew. 

[More on this anon, d.v., as reading proceeds.]

~     ~     ~

The Economist announces:

Popular physics has enjoyed a new-found regard. Now comes a brave attempt to inject mathematics into an otherwise fashionable subject

Not ‘inject’; more like ‘restore’;  but anyhow. 

In America Michio Kaku, a string theorist, has penned several successful books and wowed television and radio audiences with his presentations on esoteric subjects such as the existence of wormholes and the possibility of alien life. In Britain Brian Cox, a former pop star whose music helped propel Tony Blair to power, has become the front man for physics, which recently regained its status as a popular subject in British classrooms, an effect many attribute to Mr Cox’s astonishing appeal.

No objection here so far -- better that than Lady Gaga.   But we feel obliged to note that string theory has nothing to do with black holes or alien life.  A string-theorist waxing expansive upon these vaporous topics  is like an American movie star discoursing on world poverty.

Anyhow -- the brunt of the review is admiration for the fact that the authors of a new account -- The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen, by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw -- includes actual equations  (!!!  U must be over 21 to view these !!!) They report the agonizing soul-searching of the authors, before they finally -- daring all -- included some snippets of actual mathematics, at the risk of losing some sales:

Without it, we should have to resort to the physicist-guru mentality whereby we pluck profundities out of thin air, and neither author would be comfortable with guru status.

(Perhaps former-pop-star Cox can share with us how devastated he would be, were that ever to happen, during his next television interview.)
Yet soberly we must note:  It is entirely possible to use equations as mere decoration.  If they are neither derived by the authors nor understood by the readers, they are mere fetishism.  Apparently this is what happened, since the reviewer must reluctantly go on:

That stance might comfort the authors, but to many readers they will nonetheless seem to pluck equations out of thin air.

Well,  again:  Better people should read this sort of thing than the sort of menticidal drivel that monopolizes the best-seller lists.   But there is a red flag:

The authors have wisely chosen to leaven their tome with amusing tales of dysfunctional characters among scholars who developed quantum mechanics in the 1920s

The authors have despicably so chosen.   That is precisely the sort of thing we have called “physics porn”;  it caters to the base instincts of intellectual layabouts, who are happy to imagine  that those who actually manage to master extant science and create further insights, are  in the end,  just nerdy weirdos, safely set aside.
(For a comparable hyena's-feast upon the entrails of a dysfunctional philosopher, click here.)

The book’s title is also a red flag. 
There has long been a half-humorous maxim, batted around by physicists among others, to the effect that “Everything that is not forbidden is compulsory”.   Some posts on the Web correctly note the connection with the ancient Principle of Plenitude, but the basic idea as used by contemporary physicists was rather Minimalist:  an Okhamian ideal of explanatory parsimony, of a tight fit between principles and phenomena.  Thus, if  (say) magnetic monopoles are predicted but never found, that’s a blemish.
Of late, however, this heuristic rule-of-thumb has been extended to vacuity (by “inflation”, we suppose) in the Landscape idea, which we satirized here.

BTW -- If you’d like to read a book about physics by a good writer, in which mathematics is not just sprinkled on like jimmies on a sundae, or tinsel on a tree, but really wrestled with:  The Road to Reality (2004), by Roger Penrose.

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