May 25, 2020
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The Principal Uncertainty

Don’t be too sure of what popular physics books say—minus math, there’s no physics

The Principal Uncertainty

In a recent episode of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, Brian Greene, a physicist and popular science writer, made a cameo appearance in which he was the subject of a few good-natured jibes at his attempts to bring theoretical physics to a wider audience. “Wait till you hear how he dumbs down Werner Heisenberg for the crowd,” says one of the characters. “You may actually believe you’re in a comedy club.” It is widely accepted that far more people bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time than read it. Greene’s books are more reader-friendly and therein lies the problem. It isn’t as much the clarity of the prose that makes his books readable as the encouraging but deceptive effect of understanding they produce. It isn’t Greene’s fault. The fault, dear reader, is not in ourselves, but in the stars, the strings, the quarks...the rest of physics. The fault is that physics is described in its unique language—mathematics. Any attempt to translate mathematics into English or any other language is doomed. Popular books subscribe to the idea that every equation in them will halve sales. But the caveat is that every equation dropped halves the authenticity, a trap Greene falls into.

Illustration by Sorit
Physics hasn’t always been this way. Newton’s third law can be summed up in seven words— ‘Actions and reactions are equal and opposite’—that completely explain the law. This is not to say that mathematics wasn’t ubiquitous in pre-20th century physics. But something happened around the turn of the century that forever excluded any language but mathematics as a way of describing physics: quantum mechanics was discovered. Any theory built upon quantum mechanics had to be described in terms of abstract algebra, the branch of mathematics that deals with groups, fields and vector spaces.

Abstract algebra deals with the most fundamental notions of what mathematical operations are. As humans, we are programmed to deal with a certain level of arithmetical abstraction. When we say “2+2=4”, we are performing an abstract operation: we do not mean that two sheep plus two sheep equals four sheep any more than we mean two knives plus two knives equals four knives. It seems trivial, but “2+2=4” is a triumph of human thought. It is independent of sheep, knives, nay, of the very world we inhabit. Our understanding of abstract algebra through ordinary language only goes so far, while mathematics carries on unhindered. It’s in making the jump from understanding abstract arithmetic to trying to understand algebraic structures that things become difficult. Unfortunately, quantum mechanics and everything since sit on the math side of this chasm.

‘Popular physics’ is an approximation. While it is a good introduction and has inspired many young scientists, it isn’t complete. In ignoring this, we leave ourselves gullible to charlatans, such as those who tell us of the so-called spiritual aspects of quantum mechanics and its links to ancient eastern philosophies. The only thing worse than people claiming that spirituality tells us more about the universe than physics is people who believe they are somehow connected. They are not. They can be made to seem connected because of a widespread fallacy—that quantum mechanics can be described in the same language as philosophy.

It’s no wonder that the stereotypical image of a theoretical physicist as perpetuated by The Big Bang Theory is that of a smug and elitist snob. The massive gap between the worlds of the general public and theoretical physicists is one of language. And perhaps, in their doomed attempts to bridge this divide, popular physics books should come with a warning label that draws attention to this fact.

(The writer completed his masters in theoretical physics at King’s College, London.)

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