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Irrational dissatisfactions with physics

When people aren't understanding certain issues in physics and when they're asking questions, e.g. at the Physics Stack Exchange, they understandably seem unhappy about something. When something seems strange or something doesn't make sense, it's sensible for people to feel somewhat disturbed or unhappy. All of us know the feeling.

In some cases, the dissatisfaction depends on a technical result and there are many of them to be learned. However, I would say that way too often, people are dissatisfied because of reasons that are utterly non-technical and that are universal.




One source of such dissatisfaction has been discussed often: certain results or principles in science are counter-intuitive and many people simply want to prefer their intuition over whatever evidence you may get. They're not ready to give up intuition and accepts the scientific method. Quantum mechanics is the most frequent victim – but not the only victim.

After all, the reason usually is that these people believe that science is just a slave that "fills the details" and isn't allowed to touch some important questions that are decided by "someone more powerful than science" which means either intuition or religion or ideology or philosophy or another package of scientifically unsubstantiated dogmas and prejudices.




But the laymen often get dissatisfied because of slightly different reasons, too. One of them is closely related to the "intuition" that I have already mentioned. People often want some "intuitive understanding" of concepts, equations, laws, and theorems in physics. Sometimes they call it their "physical meaning" but it's really the same thing because if you ask them why some accurate description of a concept isn't a "physical meaning", they end up saying that it isn't intuitive for them.

An example.

Sebastian asks a question suggesting that he understands the claim of the virial theorem and its proof (well, one of several proofs that differ by the strategy and the choice of ensemble); he seems to be using this theorem in some programming related to molecular physics. But he's not satisfied:

Right now this is just some math to me (which I totally get) to calculate the temperature of a system of particles in thermal equilibrium. Is there more to it? Am I not getting it? What is the intuition behind this?
What to do with this dissatisfaction? How is one supposed to "answer" it? I had a friendly chat with the chap but I am just not getting where the feeling comes from. I am not understanding whether he understands what I was telling him. It just remains a mystery because the dissatisfaction is ultimately powered by some totally irrational drivers.

I told him that "just some math" is a loaded expression because it refers to mathematics in a disrespectful way. Mathematical results and their mathematical proofs are the most solid – and the only truly solid – results and proofs we really have in science. The virial theorem is undoubtedly such a mathematical result. But it's not "just maths" because the objects in the theorem have a physical interpretation.



A new cute Andrew Borisiuk's time-lapse video of my hometown of Pilsen (where a roof of a movie theater in the Plaza Mall collapsed today). YouTube. Vimeo.

Now, the importance of the virial theorem in statistical physics is also self-evident. Statistical physics is about the computation of average values of various quantities in the statistical ensembles – that's really the explanation what the adjective "statistical" means. It means that statistical physics is all about such computations and if some average value may be explicitly determined, of course that this portion of physics or mathematical physics and its practitioners have to be interested in such a conclusion.

The particular quantity appearing in the virial theorem is special because its average value may be simplified to the simple result proportional to the temperature; and because this quantity is often equal to kinetic or potential energy or other natural or simple functions of positions or momenta (e.g. their powers, in a popular example of the theorem). So of course that we're interested in their average values if we're interested in average values at all – if we're interested in statistical physics at all! Moreover, even for quantities that aren't exactly addressed by the virial theorem, they may often be "similar" to those that are addressed by the virial theorem.

We have spent some time with the proof, too. It's rather simple and it may be even simplified or replaced by approximate arguments – this goes up, this goes down – that explain that it passes all the expectations and/or reduces to some "simple common sense" results in special cases. Nice but the dissatisfaction didn't go away.

One may also review the history – how the claim was first known for the harmonic oscillator, kinetic and potential energy, and then it was generalized because with some data about particular examples, it's not hard to guess what the generalization looks like and it's not hard to construct the proof even if you're the first one. Sebastian told me he wasn't really interested in the history i.e. how people got it in the actual history of science.

So what is he interested in and asking about? What is he dissatisfied with? I am absolutely not getting it. And I find it sad that people are dissatisfied in this way because physics and its results – including things like the virial theorem, if we stay in the modest waters of classical physics etc. – are very exciting. Sebastian clearly doesn't see this exciting nature of physics at all. 99.99% of the people don't see it, either. I don't know why. I don't know what's stopping them. But I am annoyed by that and I still refuse to believe that whatever the obstacle is, it cannot be destroyed, nuked, neutralized, liquidated in some way. I surely want to liquidate it because while I like physics, I am annoyed by the sour faces and frustrated whining that any mentioning of physics (especially advanced physics) immediately ignites in a more normal human society (and sometimes even elsewhere)!

Needless to say, the exchange may have stayed friendly, especially in the chat, but it just didn't lead anywhere and couldn't lead anywhere. The obstacle preventing people from understanding the actual key results that form the skeleton of our physics knowledge is a formidable enemy. I don't know how to nuke it and destroy it. I don't even know how to locate it. ;-) Anyone can help me?

Another example is a minor curiosity but the lesson of the following story is also much more general. Terry asked whether the Higgs mechanism addresses the "spin-statistics problem". Cute. Now, there is no spin-statistics problem. There is a spin-statistics relationship or spin-statistics theorem and it's a good thing, an insight (and theorem) about Nature, not a problem, so it shouldn't be "addressed" but learned, exploited, and celebrated. I feel that the wrong idea that some important result in physics is actually a "problem that should be wrestled with" is also a rather general misunderstanding that appears quite often. It must come from somewhere. It must come from some negative emotions that are being conveyed together with the technical material and that make people feel that there is a problem even if the instructor or textbook etc. never says such a thing.

Maybe Terry saw or heard that there was a problem with theories that combine half-integer spins with the Bose-Einstein statistics or vice versa. Indeed, it's a problem for these theories – they're dead – but for us, the death isn't a problem. It's a precious piece of knowledge. Maybe Terry and others think that the ban is a problem because everything should be allowed in physics. Anything goes. Well, that's not how Nature works and thank God for this fact. Every new insight we make proves that "anything goes" is even more wrong than previously thought. There are laws, there are patterns, only some statements are right while others are not.

Or take this bizarre question about the measurement of the cosmological constant. QSA suggests that when people say that they measure the constant, they are actually calculating it, so they're sloppy about semantics and terminology. Holy cow. Why would they say "measure" if they meant "calculate"? They're completely different verbs, aren't they? Now, a measurement of the cosmological constant sometimes needs to do some calculation aside from the "manual work with the measurement apparatus" but that's true for any other measurement of anything, too. The difference between a measurement and a calculation is that we still need some observational apparatus so the determination of the cosmological constant is really not a (mere) calculation.

(No one knows how to uniquely calculate the observed value of the cosmological constant, due to the largeness of the "landscape" and the absence of a known selection mechanism etc. When people learn how to perform this calculation, it will probably mean that the theory of everything has been fully understood. On the contrary, the measurement of the cosmological constant is a standard procedure in cosmology these days; the 2011 Nobel prize in physics was awarded for these achievements.)

This guy sees people who are saying "measure" but he hears "calculate". He convinces himself that they must be saying something else than they are saying. Why? What leads him to incorporate these random distortions and misprints into sentences he hears? What leads him to believe that the mistake is created by those who use the verb (and say that they're sloppy about semantics) – and not by himself, a person who manifestly fabricates what he's actually hearing?

A user named rsg asked about the applications of entangled states. The general theme is much more general here, too. He's asking what the concept is good for. He is apparently assuming that physical concepts are always "objects" that are about as large as a car, that have an application, and that must be justified by an application for them to be allowed to exist at all.

But this is a complete misunderstanding what science tries to do. Science is meant to understand how Nature works. It is not a collection of gadgets we collect to improve our lives. Moreover, different concepts in science may refer to situations and objects that vastly differ in their frequency or omnipresence. In particular, entangled states aren't a device that you use twice a day, like your car. Almost all states in the Hilbert space – all states describing Nature – are entangled (and non-maximally entangled). Sometimes we don't even talk about the situations in this way. We don't say they're entangled states. Most people don't realize that they're observing objects in entangled states. But there are still entangled states everywhere.

So it's really a very bad question to ask for an application of a concept such as an entangled state. It's analogous to asking what prime integers are good for. I don't know. They're numbers that can't be factorized which may be relevant, useful, or harmful in various situations. Of course that one can't pick any single representative example – one that would be as visualizable as the car ride from A to B. But this non-specificity doesn't mean that prime integers or entangled states aren't essential in maths or physics. When we want to understand or predict the behavior of physical systems, we need to think in terms of propositions that do talk about entangled states (and other things). Entangled states manifest themselves by a certain behavior that's pretty clear from their very definition: they lead to correlations in the measurements of various quantities. So they matter. It's nonsensical to ask about a particular application that would be as specific as a car ride. Such a question is really missing the reason why concepts exist in physics. They're not designed for one particular goal such as a car ride. They're invented to organize our knowledge in lots of ways. Also, unlike cars or animals, they don't have a contrived inner structure. On the contrary, they try to be as sharp and simple, to help us to quickly get to the heart of the problems (I don't mean bad problems, I mean any questions we want to understand!).

Needless to say, this discussion has pretty much nothing to do with entangled states. It's much more general. Entangled states were picked as a scapegoat, a particular concept that the user hasn't yet internalized or understood, for that matter. But the same thing occurs to pretty much all concepts or theories in physics that differ from a "car", something that does a specific service to the people.

I have discussed the value of the virial theorem but let me wrap this blog entry with another dissatisfaction about thermodynamics and statistical physics – one that boils down to a general feature or virtue of these disciplines. Douglas complained that no one ever says which microscopic interactions are responsible for the emission of the black body radiation from a heated solid body.

This is potentially a good question from a beginner but once you see that Douglas vehemently refuses to listen to the answer, you will realize that it's not a good question at all. It's another irrational roadblock, an additional brain defect that should be liquidated but I don't know how to do it.

The answer is, of course, that thermodynamics and to a large extent even its more constructive and more microscopic underlying theory, statistical physics, are pretty much defined by their ability – or desire – to predict certain general features of large macroscopic objects (with a temperature) by methods that don't require to study every microscopic detail of how these conclusions arise; methods that are largely independent of the identity of the elementary building blocks and their fundamental interactions. And the wonderful thing is that it is possible!

In fact, all available interactions – dipole interaction between the atoms and the electromagnetic fields, and all others – are employed in a very chaotic way when the black body radiation is being emitted. For a large enough near-black body, it would be a hopeless task to follow every interaction that takes place and study how they "conspire" to produce the Planck curve. But statistical physics is nevertheless able to predict some macroscopic properties of the final result – e.g. the whole Planck's black body curve – without knowing which interactions are actually transferring the energy from the solid body to the electromagnetic field!

(The reason is that after a time that is short enough if the interactions are sufficiently strong, the electromagnetic field – and any other object – reaches the thermal equilibrium with its surroundings and the statistical properties and distributions of photons in thermal equilibrium are completely calculable and only depend on the temperature. We can exactly predict the Planck curve even though we don't know which microscopic processes created which photons.)

Now, this fact is a wonderful news. We're able to learn something pretty much exactly without doing some messy work. It's a gospel. And this is the type of tricks – alternative arguments that work when and because the number of degrees of freedom in thermodynamic systems is large – that both thermodynamics and statistical physics are doing all the time. These disciplines are not about the analysis of one or several elementary particles, about the reduction of everything to particular microscopic processes, about the focus on a particular fundamental force. Instead, they don't care much what the microscopic architecture is but they may still derive certain statements about the statistical properties of a large number of atoms, thermal properties of macroscopic bodies, and so on.

Statistical physics and thermodynamics are self-evidently important and this sort of tricks – the ability to calculate things without analyzing every microscopic detail – surely belongs to their "defining character". So Douglas' dissatisfaction with these disciplines' not being specific about the microscopic interactions that dominate etc. is a dissatisfaction with the basic character of statistical physics and thermodynamics. He is clearly rejecting the whole point of these disciplines of physics because this "independence of certain results on the microscopic details" is indeed what these disciplines are all about.

One can talk for hours but he just won't get it. In some sense, this dissatisfaction is analogous to the criticisms of string theory by the ultrashitty scumbags who don't like the very fact that string theory deals with phenomena that can't be directly tested in our labs. But again, that's the whole point of the discipline that it focuses on the fundamental processes at the fundamental scale that we've known for more than 100 years (thanks, Max Planck) to be dozens of orders of magnitude away from the conditions we may reproduce in the contemporary lab. So their unhappiness is nothing else than their admission that they just don't give a damn about physics at the fundamental scale: they're primitive uncultural bastards and scum although they use all kinds of makeup to sell their shittiness almost as a virtue.

The criticism of statistical physics and thermodynamics is analogous except that the type of knowledge that "is not welcome" is different: the insights that are independent of some mechanical microscopic calculations shouldn't be allowed, Douglas thinks. But they should be allowed and science gets richer whenever it finds a totally new way to look at things. Some people or many people don't share the sentiment behind the previous sentence because they ultimately don't give a damn about the knowledge of Nature, they ultimately don't give a damn about the truth.

It seems that the roadblocks powering all the kinds of dissatisfaction that were described in this blog entry – and others – can't be detonated because the cause of this dissatisfaction probably isn't the presence of something but the absence of something. Unfortunately, this hole can't be detonated away.

And that's the sad memo.

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reader Peter F. said...

Dear Lubos,
Most people are naturally/socially encumbered with unfulfilled early needs (since their early childhood), and such typically not clearly, if at all, consciously registered and acknowledged needs remain as conditioned-in dynamic and often insidiously influential states that can, and almost in every case DO, percolate into how they (we) perceive and feel about "things" in the present.
When such snags put a spanner in how we communicate with each other it can be helpful to remember this small and necessarily greatly simplified fact about the 'psychophysiological' (or some label like that) aspect of What Is going on.


reader PlatoHagel said...

I am glad that regardless of how much you feel frustrated at the mental blocks that may exist for the lay public(our intuition), that you strive to continue to share the basis of physics "as a quest" for the understanding that physics rightly.

IN a sense when one has offspring, such a role ultimately is recognized, as we bring our little ones into the world with the hopes and fortitude require such independence. Hoping it will have them prosper and ultimately re-engage the world, with the hopes that we may have seen in our own situation which may be lacking with such foresight as to give that offspring a chance at the world. The children with such tools will do very well in observance of the parent. That's just the way of it.

To see that perspective overlap in such a role as "teacher," is much the same in my view as to accept the responsibility we have for others. So this indeed is a great burden as a teacher as for parent alike.


That patience, is a virtue. So I thank you again.



Best,


reader dram09 said...

Mr. Motl,

Language is imprecise, Mathematics is very precise. Lay people are trying to bridge the gap between intuition and reliance on systems of knowledge that have no analogy in common experience. Analogy: They are learning to balance and ride the bicycle, while practiced physicists are improving their skills with extreme jumps and tricks. Only time and practice gives us lay people the ability to trust "just mathematics", and also incorporate that math in their intuition or world view. Patience.


reader Dilaton said...

Yep,

since the last moderator elections the number of people on Physics SE who dont know what they are talking about when asking, who are not in the slightest interested in really learning physics, who dont listen to what reasonable people tell to explain to them in answers and comments, but who try to engage everybody in pointless nonconstructive discussions by trying to enforce their wrong and negative prejudices about physics, has dramatically incrieased. At the moment, we seem to observe just another episode of increased inflow of such people.

For this degradation of the site and the general drop in the level I blame to a large part David Zaslavsky and Manishearth, who focus their moderation activity way too much on policying, making sure by insisting on everybody observing strange rules of "civility" and "non-rudeness" according to their weird personal definition, which leads to the fact that people who dont like it when being told wrong and explained why they are wrong or who are dissatisfied with physics as described in this TRF article, can flag correct physics statements and explanations they dont like for deletion etc (Lumo you know what I mean :-/...). The habit of deleting correct physics explanations just because they are not "constructively" formulated and leaving wrong whereas leaving wrong comments alone below the same post because they consider them for some reason more "constructive" David and Mansishearth often show does not increase the scientific correctnes and reliability of the site ...

Today, every dimwit who is not in the slightes interested in learning physics but shows a very nonconstructive behavior and attitude towards physical insights has to be handled with kid gloves, which explains why the site has started to be flooded by people who have neither a clue what they are talking about nor are they really interested in learning from the people who know physics.

To what is described in this TRF article, I can add an additional example of a user who outright dismisses any physics
arguments people are giving him in answers and comments in the course of
explaining things to him he asked about, and who tries to start pointless
nonconstructive discussions all the time: http://physics.stackexchange.com/users/17623/user4884?tab=activity

I sourly miss the "good old times" (that are in fact not that old, only about 6 months ago) as Physics SE still had a reasonably high enough level, the community mostly consisted of physicists, students, and physics enthusiasts who loved physics and were seriously interested learning physics. Today the atmosphere on the site and the community has completely changed since it has become flooded by people who have almost no physics knowledge of their own and who are not really interested in learning. Sure there are still good people on the site I like a lot and highly appreciate, but the good things get more and more deluted in the course of time ...


reader David Nataf said...

Sometimes, when the math is too difficult for me to understand something within the time I have invested, I look for a satisfactory intuitive explanation, which I'm more likely to remember three years down the line. For the virial theorem, the only useful crutch I know is a very trivial one, it applies to one planet orbiting one star,and that can be derived on a napkin, lol. But it's not useless, if I forget the factor of -0.5, I can derive it with that crutch, as I do not remember the full proof.


reader Luke Lea said...

"99.99% of the people don't see it, either. I don't know why. I don't know what's stopping them."

Dear Lubos, Imagine you are a teacher in a room full of twelve-year- olds with down syndrome and that you are trying to explain to them the difference between a nickel, a dime, and a quarter. My wife actually was in that situation once and she told me it was hopeless. But after just a few minutes she did realize what was stopping them, so didn't get too frustrated as a result. (In fact she found them emotionally warm and extremely sensitive; one of the least retarded ones actually wrote her a note after class saying she didn't want any more "critter sizzens.")

Anyway, the frustration you say you feel trying to understand why these people don't appreciate physics looks like a mirror image of the frustration they feel trying to appreciate physics. I can't believe you haven't figured that out already. More likely (if I may psychologize) you are frustrated that you can't find more people who share your appreciation of physics. In a word, you are lonely.

(Ironically very physics you love helps explain why your situation has arisen: some events are highly unlikely, and you are one of them!)


reader Dilaton said...

That is a cute nice story with your wife and the children ;-)


Unfortunately things are often not so nice with people who do not understand physics today. Many of them are not emotionally warm at all, but behave rather hostile towards people who do understand physics, dismiss and deny the achievements of the field etc ... :-/.

Some of them do not even try to understand or listen when physicists try to explain things to them.


reader Kieran Garland said...

To concentrate for a moment on an earlier point you made, to what extent do you believe intuition can play a role in a study of physics? And how do we develop an intuition (forgive me) for knowing at which times it might be helpful, or appropriate to do so, and which times it is not?


In my mind, sometimes it's hard to know when and where to draw the line.

Presumably, there's much regarding classical mechanics that can be intuited, or that can at least be pictured by the mind to some useful degree, and of course this may offer some helpful insights to a problem.

But, when we delve deeper, and strive toward an understanding of quantum, or string theory, is it ultimately more practical - at this point of our studies in particular - to resolutely abandon any desire for some kind of instructive imagery? Is it simply naive to hope for some?

I hear the echo of an answer: "Well, yes, Kieran. It is naive."

Yet, when I picture (say) the shadow of a four-dimensional hypercube moving in space-time, I start to believe I could recognise something more profound about its features. And then I begin to hope that, after all, I might just glimpse something of a much deeper reality.

In any case, it is hard to relinquish such thoughts.

Fascinating memo.

With thanks.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Kieran, a good question. A good intuition surely helps physicists, a bad intuition may stop them or send them to a wrong track. One should only ask for the former, good intuition ;-), but its presence depends on one's own training and discipline, too.


Intuition sounds extremely mysterious and spiritual but at the end, it's a compressed summary of experience and knowledge, something that allows one to guess and extrapolate even in contexts that are nothing like what has been seen before.


Finally, I don't think that the only possible intuition is a classical picture. I see intuition as something much more general that allows people to "guess" the right answers - even when no picture or explicit step-by-step calculation is explicitly involved. It seems clear to me that those of us who have worked with quantum mechanics for quite some time have a strong intuition about it, perhaps stronger than about classical physics and many everyday life issues.


The fact that quantum mechanics isn't compatible with any classical imagery doesn't mean that one can't develop intuition for quantum mechanics! At the end, intuition is about expectations that we don't quite know where they're coming from and what they based upon but that often turn out to be right. And this comes with experience. Experience is possible in quantum mechanics and string theory just like in classical physics and elsewhere.


reader Shannon said...

Lubos, experience yes and expertise surely. I even believe that QM *is* intuition incarnated.


reader L. Edgar Otto said...

so, would the problem of weights in the various string representations be a calculation or a measure problem- I do not know the the update on this problem since 97 or so- great Pilsner video btw


reader ppnl said...

Somebody had to link it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_TZSkBBCow


reader Gordon Wilson said...

I don't really understand why Zaslavsky has become such an apparachik. He should be nearly done his Phd in particle physics and I think his dad is a physicist. Maybe the power is going to his head :)

I do miss the "characters" on stack---ie Ron Maimon, who, while he could be arrogant and annoying, was undeniably intelligent and fascinating in his take on things. I guess those characteristics are verboten to the Overlords.

He is not the only one. Some of the luminaries have fled--some early on, to be replaced by the inflow of looky-loos. Also, it is annoying to read a question and then be hit with a checkmark for accepted answer which is frankly wrong or not-even wrong, when a much better answer or even a correct answer follows.

I should not even be commenting on this because I left quite long ago and only look in on occasion (not that I am any expert).


reader Dilaton said...

Exactly :-/

I once liked and appreciated David Zaslavsky as a nice wise, reasonable, and minimally invasive moderator who had an astonishing skill in deactivating minor or large conflicts, and who did everything to protect the interests and needs of the former community of grown up and student physicists and enthusiasts against damages of any kind.

Now, either something dramatic must have happend about half a year ago to David Zaslavsky, which changed him completely, or the other possibility is that he has always been an apparachik deep inside but did hide it first and is now showing his true colors ...

Darn, we urgently need a "Physics Overflow" as far away as possible from the SE network, where a community of real physicists, students and seriously interested enthusiasts (inclucing bright characters such as Ron !) can form and thrive again ... !!!


reader Gordon Wilson said...

A problem for me with something like Physics stack is that the stack exchange is a for profit company and it profits from the content and expertise supplied by its users -gratis. To me, this is not ethical, as opposed to, say, Wikipedia, which uses free content and expertise, but aside from salaries for its employees is not being run to profit the owners or shareholders of a company. Kudos to Jimmy Wales.


Dilaton, if you want to discuss some of these OT things with me sometime, leave me a msg on my facebook page.


reader John Galt said...

Lubos - please change your website formatting - it literally hurts my eyes and brain.honestly. love teh content but find it hard to read


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear John, have you tried this?

http://motls.blogspot.com/?m=1


reader Dilaton said...

I have no facebook acount because I trust facebook even less than the SE owners, stuff, overlords, etc ... ;-)
I am somehow on google+ but not very active there either.

I will try if I can leave a comment without having to log in, or if I can create a ghost account (reading about BRST at the moment haha) without having to fill in any real personal data


reader Gordon Wilson said...

Well I am on gmail chat and skype also.

but I have nothing much to add right now anyway.


reader Dilaton said...

Hi Gordon,

how can I reach you via gmail chat? David Zaslavsky, Manishearth, EnergyNumbers and other not seriously in physics interested people who dominate the site policy drive me up the wall again:

http://meta.physics.stackexchange.com/q/4171/2751

http://meta.physics.stackexchange.com/q/4174/2751


reader Polaron said...

Luke's comment is fairly relevant Lubos. As a professional physicist ( I am a retired one) we live in a relatively rarefied intellectual atmosphere where there is some commonality of education and experience. Since intuition is generally defined as an understanding not based on conscious reasoning but based on instinctive feelings, it is perhaps not unreasonable to assume that the intuition of a professional scientist which may draw unconsciously on a developed knowledge base may be very different from that of a lay person who has a general interest in science or even a science teacher with no research background. Their intuition has not been "tuned" by years of practice of a discipline in which we learn to question our intuition by testing it against observation and discarding our intuition where it doesn't fit.

Scientists from other fields intuition can be remarkably insightful when dealing with their own area of specialization but incredibly naive outside their specialization, yet even naive thoughts can lead us to think outside the box. Even within physics, is it really possible to be equally knowledgeable in all areas of physics any more. As scientist, we also use language in a defined framework where we can use shorthand descriptions which are meaningful within that framework, but obscure to the uninitiated.

Try listening to the financial jargon at a stock exchange if you want an example. They all know what they mean and have an intuition and understanding based on a different knowledge base that seems meaningless to us mere physicists. To many of the lay public we are just another form of high priest claiming access to an arcane knowledge which is beyond their reach unless they become initiates also and learn to distrust their intuition. It is only its usefulness to society at large that gives the knowledge and methodology, we hold as sacrosanct, its credibility with the public.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Luke and Polaron,

first, yes, the ultimate emotional source of my frustration about these attitudes is the (relative) loneliness but I simply won't agree it is a "mirror image" of the frustration of these folks by physics. A mirror image is a Z2 symmetric copy of the original, a structurally isomorphic object. There is no isomorphism between the reasons of my and their frustration. Moreover, the laymen who consider physics basically worthless are not "lonely" in any sense - they are a vast majority of the mankind.

Right, a person who is told about an "expert with mysterious access to arcane knowledge" inevitably feels that the expert is not genuinely credible. But that has nothing to do with the source of my frustration. I don't want anyone to blindly worship or respect "experts", whether they're genuine/physicists or fake, just because they're called experts. What I want - and expect - people to do is to try to think by themselves. I've mentioned many examples above - examples of things that the people (and they're not the most average members of the public!) simply should get after a reasonably short time. For example that thermodynamics and statistical physics provide us with methods to derive certain conclusions about macroscopic/thermal properties that turn out to be independent of the microscopic details - so no "step by step" microscopic simulation is needed and it's a wonderful thing that things can be determined without this "brute force", uninspired approach. I don't believe that there is anything "arcane" about this general knowledge, especially if the person struggling with this idea is a physics student of a sort.

Cheers
LM


reader Dilaton said...

Now Manishearth has banned me from Physics SE as Shog9 did with Ron Maimon at the beginning of last December, see:

http://physics.stackexchange.com/users/2751/dilaton

for doing nothing else than disagreeing with some SE policies and certain actions of some moderators.

Here is Manishearts corresponding private message and my replay to it:

http://physics.stackexchange.com/users/message/99?noredirect=1#99

The regime there has become completely dictatorial, similar to some real world dictatorships where people who disagree too strongly and/or actively with the policies or the regime get eliminated.


I have no idea what Manishearth, David Zaslavsky, and the whole SE stuff and owners are up to concerning the sites of different topics, in particular physics. I only observe that they rigorously prohibit the development of any higher level community which could hold up a reasonably good level of physics content of the site.


Manishearth and all the SE owners and stuff consider the non computer sites to different topics just as they personal playgrounds where they can have fun exercising ower, test and install new rules and policies etc where they give a damn about the level, content, and usefulness of these sites for real experterts and people intererested in the topic. Grown up people who have their own oinions and refuse to be patronized like kindergarten kids are not tolerated.


So why do they allow the sites with different topics to be populated by real users who are real world persons instead of just populating the different sites by bots? I am sure they are perfectly capaple of writing bots who can write questions and answers as real users. Such artificial users would be much more easily managable, would never disagree with any rules and policies or closed questions etc ... With such users, the different SE sites would be THE perfect play ground for the SE owners, stuff, and moderators to have fun and enjoy themself...


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Dilaton, sad to hear it. But if you care about the policies over there so much, perhaps so much more than the contents, you should have run in the moderator elections and win them. You didn't so you shouldn't act as if your opinion matters as much as the opinion of the moderators. It just doesn't and cannot.


reader Dilaton said...

Dear Lumo,

before the SE owners/stuff/moderators and tons of non physicists have driven away Ron before the elections, I gave a damn about the darn policies; I was just happily enjoying learning about cool physics there. There were so many good questions and answers there that made me happy and excited. I was neither concerned nor affected nor interested. It is only after non physicists have started to successfully persecute Ron and taking over the site, that I started to get concerned about things.

But I am sure you have noted too that the level of the site has fallen to the ground since the elections, enforcement of rules in a very biased and capricious way has ramped up; and the siteis way too overmoderated by bad policies the real physicists never agreed upon.

I tried to concenctrat just on the nice physics question that can (very sparsely now) be found and ignore the ugly things. But the ugly things (Manishearth dominating the site, questions getting closed which should be left alone etc) so it did not work.

I thought about throwing my hat into the elections for a moment too, but I could not because I have once done a bad thing, even though my chances would maybe have been not that bad.

But that I care more about policies than about the content is not true (that you think this is quite disturbing to me), fact is that the good exciting content has almost evaporated and the bad things which should not happen on a serious physics site have dramatically increased.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Dilaton, apologies, maybe I am ultimately less political than you are but I haven't noticed any action of moderators for quite some time, I don't even know who the current moderators are (I am not certain about a single name!) and I haven't noticed any change in the quality of the conversations after the latest elections whose date I vaguely remember. The site never had some super-top quality, as far as I remember.


After all, I don't understand how the moderators could really affect such things substantially. In my opinion, their powers are extremely limited - they're servants, doing some somewhat hard work, probably for free. Let me admit that these are the reasons I have never run in those elections.


reader Eugene S said...

Manishearth is 18 years old, if I'm not mistaken. The phenomenon of the "child admin" was started by Wikipedia, where you had 13-year olds bossing 50-year old full professors around. 18-year-olds are not children anymore but one may wonder whether they can possess the maturity to decide on sanctions for much older people. Then again, Manishearth was elected, not appointed, so by that measure he is entirely legitimate. May I express my hope that you will turn your new-found free time to productive use... this may yet turn out to be a blessing in disguise.


reader Dilaton said...

Maybe Manishearth was among the 13-year old admins bossing Professors around at Wikipedia 5 years ago too...? He enjoys policying and installing new rules and constraints way too much and gives a damn about the content and the level of physics the site can support.

The elections have probably not been fair, way to many non physics people have flooded the physics site shortly, before, during, and after the elections. And too many of them had the rep to vote in the election even though they never showed any interest in the physics site before ...

Not sure if reading more in my nice demystified book, watching cool (for example Dirac) videos, etc would exactly be called "productive" :-D... but it is certainly more "constructive" (imagine a tongeue-in-cheek smiley here) :-P


reader Eugene S said...

Sounds like a good use of your time! But if you'd like to continue using Stackexchange during your suspension from physics.se, consider signing up to german.se. I could use some back-up there and on meta.german.se on occasion :)


reader Sebastian Henckel said...

The problem is, you can look at physics as an engineering discipline, or as an artistic discipline which needn't have an application but is worthy in itself. Not caring about "understanding" or "intuition" is an engineering attitude. This formula works? It's been proven to work? Great! Let's use it. Who cares about it being beautiful or "true". Heisenberg has an interesting passage in his book (I think it's the "the part and the whole") where he tells of a lecture tour he held in the U.S.A. back in the '20's. He went sailing with an American physicist friend between stops, and Heisenberg explained to him his astonishment that the Americans didn't lose a beat about quantum mechanics. In Germany, they were going up the wall (like Einstein), but in the U.S. they were taking it in a stride. The American friend replied that he found the American attitude very natural: If something works, you accept it. If bridges don't collapse and airplanes fly, then that's the way to go. Heisenberg disapproved, and (in a somewhat chauvinistic attitude), stated that this was the difference between the pragmatic Anglo-Saxon spirit and the romantic, philosophical and poetical German one. I have to agree: Let's say magic worked: Some clown with a top-hat could actually make bunnies jump out of it. The pragmatists would say: "Great! The food-problem of the world has been solved. Rabbits for everyone." A philosophically minded person however, while also being happy about the technical applications, would be unhappy for purely intellectual reasons. With quantum mechanics, the situation is something like that. Isn't understanding the real reason for physics, and not semi-conductors and lasers?
Similarly, in mathematics: You can "understand" a proof by following each minute step up to the Q.E.D. And even though you agree with each step, the whole proof will escape you - in order to really understand it, you need to make an emotional connection with the concepts and "feel" them. So I don't think it unreasonable to demand intuition, understanding and beauty. However, when they are absent, the fault is hopefully your own, and not that of physics. Claiming that physics is to blame is of course silly, but wanting to find a different perspective that lets one truly "understand" is natural and also useful. And that perspective can be different for different people. So I understand these questions in physics S.E.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Sebastian, whatever choices from your list you make, your understanding of science, its method, and its very purpose is completely, fundamentally wrong.


Arts are about beauty, engineering is about utility. Science is like none of these two. It is a third vertex in a triangle because it's about the truth which is neither beauty nor utility.


Intuition may help one find the truth - especially when it's a good intuition ;-), in other cases, intuition fails. But the goal is always the truth and the scientific method is designed so that it verifies whether the final outcome is the truth, and if it is not, it eliminates the things that led to it. The final goal is *not* utility like in engineering.


Science only looks for understanding in the scientific sense - the actual ability to predict or relate the observed data that passes the tests. If someone is looking for a beauty that is "obliged" to agree with his predetermined sense of beauty, he is not doing science but some kind of arts that isn't science. If someone is looking for an understanding that "has to" agree with the understanding he has had from the beginning, he is not doing science but some kind of bigotry.


In the 1920s, Germany was well ahead of the U.S. in physics. The pragmatic spirit was out there in the U.S. already there - and much earlier - and it's been there in recent decades as well. Physics depends on the delicate balance between hot philosophical dreams and speculations on one side and the cold, uncompassionate elimination of the hypotheses using the cold hard data on the other side. If this delicate balance breaks down, physics deteriorates either to philosophy or to botany.


Some conceptual reasoning was badly needed to make revolutions including the relativistic and quantum revolutions. The philosophical spirit of Europe was helpful in that while the pragmatic approach of America was key to making the evolutionary progress to quantum field theory, string theory, and beyond.


But this story is just a caricature of the reality. In the real history, it was much more important where most of the overall brain power was located at different periods. Germany was simply the world's #1 powerhouse in physics in the early 20th century. In the 1930s, the brain drift began and it escalated after 1945 when America became the main superpower. That's where most of the science was done since then - and the science always required and does require both the creation of courageous hypotheses and their careful testing, elimination, and direction of the compass of physics in a more accurate direction.