Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Physics Strip-Tease

By now I’ve read a fairish number of general overviews of modern physics, written for the layman  by physicists of note (Arthur Eddington, George Gamow, Werner Heisenberg, Richard Feynman, Heinz Pagels,  J. C. Polkinhorne,  P. C. W. Davies, Steven Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Kip Thorne, Martin Rees, Paul Davies, Roger Penrose, Brian Greene,  …..), along with a smattering of actual textbooks;  and thus managed  with time  to acquire  a veneer of acquaintance  with things that, for the most part, I don’t truly understand.  This is not intended to be as shocking a confession as may sound:  Few of us really understand much of anything;  we just get by.  And many a physicst has ‘fessed up to not truly understanding quantum theory, though able to do the calculations well enough.  (For an emo outgushing  about the similar situation in mathematics  -- if anything more severe -- click here.)

There is a metaphor  beloved of analytic philosophers:  “Our spade is turned.”  Meaning, after immense intellectual labors  continuing those going back to Plato, we can finally dig no further into the ontological fundament.   Only,  for the layman, in contemporary physics, our spade gets turned rather early.   We seldom get past the state of gaping (by the reader) and hand-waving (by the author).

It’s not the expositor’s fault.  This stuff really is hard.  It’s not enough anymore even to be a professional physicist:  if you are not a string-theorist, you probably won’t understand string theory.

So there are two things the would-be popularizer (meaning this in a good sense -- haute vulgarisation) can do.
            (1)  Sink to “physics porn”:  enticingly fluttering colored veils, till the readers are panting (Time travel !  Parallel universes !!  Higgs effing boson !!!)  and have the illusion that they have learned something.   But they will never actually enter that dark portal …
            (2) Patiently, patiently  lay it all out. -- The most successful attempt in this vein is Richard Feynman’s concise but trenchant The Character of Physical Law.  More generous with the mathematics (though short on shareable physical insight) is the not-at-all concise (doubles as a doorstop  if you never make it through) and perhaps not maximally-modestly titled  The Road to Reality, by Roger Penrose.  And even here, at its least-good, this brick-of-a-book is essentially just more abundant and more elaborate mathematical window-dressing;  I must reluctantly concur with the stern but just review here.

There is so much to learn … but the head hurts so …  Sometimes I envy the hamsters … …. ………

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