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Category: Science

What’s a humanz kid to do with physics?

(Humanz is how my school used to abbreviate “humanities”, which is forgivable largely because humans would not have made any sense.)

I’ve been having this illicit thing going on for a while now. A year ago, I started craving something more…exotic and subscribed to New Scientist on my feed, and then the Cosmic Variance blog. Often I was so stunted in the field that I could not understand much of what was being said, but what I could get I found really interesting, and after watching Brian Cox’s A Night with the Stars, I decided that I should heed Snow’s advice and at least be literate in some scientific concepts. I borrowed two books from my local library, George Johnson’s The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments (a light-reading thing) and In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin (to ease me into something I have not touched properly for a long time), with a mind to learn some quantum theory.

I write this because it struck me in the course of my inquiries that there are differences between scientists and philosophers (or at least a gap between my thinking and the inherent assumptions held by the books’ authors). The first thing I found a little troubling is how physicists talk about extremely specific things. Like light,  water, oscillation etc. What’s so special about oscillation? And that’s the thing that is never really explained: why precisely we should take a pendulum with weight g and care about its frequency.

Obviously, there is probably something important about oscillation, but my point is that there is a gap between the humanities’ habit of dealing with the general (it makes little sense for philosophers to have an American morality for example) and the scientist’s way of starting from the particular, possibly because they have no way of knowing what is general. This synthetic (in the analytic/synthetic sense) nature of scientists’ knowledge is alien to humanities students, who often do a lot more a priori thinking. Remember the problems of induction and the many pointed arguments raised in the philosophy of science against the practice of the scientific method and we reach the conclusion that philosophers are uncomfortable with the lack of necessity, the essential underdetermination that underlies our scientific efforts.

Let me give you a personal example to illustrate what I mean. I have finally understood the essential conclusions of the double slit experiment and the particle/wave duality thing that seems to be important in quantum theory. But it seems to me that the logic was never very sound. Essentially, the argument presented by Brian Cox is:
1. Doing the double slit experiment with a wave will result in light bands.
2. Doing the double slit experiment with electrons or light results in light bands.
C: Electrons and light behave like waves.

Now, particle/wave duality is probably true, but it is not logically valid. Just because electrons behave like waves in this case does not mean they will do so in other ways.

And I think this is the primary thing that makes science so strange for me. The focus on very particular examples to illustrate larger concepts and that logic does not play much of a role at all (Popper not withstanding).

P.S. Corrections to misconceptions very welcome.

Atomic theory and determinism

I have recently decided to learn more about science and hence, finished the first of six easy pieces (the lecture series by Feynman). I was reading the chapter on atomic motion, when it struck me how I have not noticed how inherently random things are, how atoms move and vibrate without any set route. Now, determinism has always had a pseudo-scientific bent to it, that we can be reduced to atoms whose behaviour is calculable. Fair enough: as Feynman notes, one theory in biology is that we are essentially atoms and our bodies must be explainable by atomic theory. Yet, atomic motion is random; if we are truly guided on a biological level, and free will is a clever illusion, determinism is not a sensible alternative. Its notion of preset paths is incompatible with the randomness in physics.

{This reminds me of a striking passage from the excellent Lewis Thomas: that we are really controlled by things within cells. Is our conscience just renting a body that does not belong to it? Again, coherent with the literature separating the soul from the body? I’ll quote the text as soon as I can find my book.)