Two very interesting posts (and discussion threads) at Uncertain Principles: here and here. Here’s the second post in full, with a few comments of my own thrown in.
In the very nice comment thread that’s sprung up around the last post (this is why I envy Teresa Nielsen Hayden), Mary Messall writes about Physics in general:
The thing is stories don’t give you numbers that can be checked by experiment. Equations do. Insofar as we demand that our science be experimentally verifiable, we’re demanding that it consist of equations. In that sense there’s no such thing as “a scientific explanation.” Explanations are inherently unscientific — unpredictive, unfalsifiable.
What’s more, I find (to my dismay) that a great many, perhaps even the majority, of the equations we’re given in class are used *without* interpretation. Sometimes I wander around demanding an interpretation for some specific expression from everyone in the department, and mostly I eventually come up with some story that satisfies me, but it’s amazing how many of the people I ask in the meantime don’t know and *don’t care*.
And they’re better at solving problems than I am.
I’m a little bit bitter about some of the professors who’ve had that attitude. “Interpretation is the same thing as popularization, as speculation. Frivolous. Unrigorous. Beneath us. Shut up and calculate.” They’re right, in a way. It can’t predict anything.
I guess I still think stories (and applications, which are usually disdained by the same people) are the [horse], and the equations are the [cart]. But the equations-for-their-own-sakes people may be better scientists than I am. I’m not sure.
It’s a big enough idea that it deserves a post of its own. I’ve written about something vaguely similar in the area of lecture prep– twice, in fact: one, two– so it should come as no surprise that I tend to think of stories as an integral part of physics.
Contrary to what Mary says, I’ve found that the very best physicists I know (and this includes a couple of Nobel laureates, if I may be permitted a JVP moment) are the ones who have the best grasp of the stories and interpretations.
I talked once with a distinguished colleague who’d had the chance to see many great scientists speak – people like Feynman, Weinberg, Gell-Mann, Yang, Wilczek, and others. He made a comment about Feynman that struck me very much. The comment was that whatever subject Feynman was talking about, it was obvious that he had thought about it deeply from every conceivable angle, and so had arrived at extremely simple conceptions of many things that were often thought to be rather difficult. As a result it simply appeared that he could see through to the core of things in a way that most of us usually don’t.
This isn’t quite the same as what Chad is saying, but I think it’s closely related. Almost without exception, the most outstanding scientists I’ve met have this common property of trying to see through to the core of things, arriving at an extremely simple conceptual understanding.
At least for the sort of physics that I do, it’s essential to ground your understanding of the physics in terms of the real motions of real atoms that are the basis of everything. If you can understand what’s going on in simple terms, and more importantly explain it that way to other people, that’s a big step toward being able to push experiments in new directions, and explore new phenomena.
I used to think that one of the big sources of differences in ability between different researchers is that some people are much better than others at keeping track of complex ideas.
I now think that’s a cuckoo way of looking at things, and that a more accurate picture is that some people take much more care than others to reduce things to very simple terms all the time. Such people, because they understand things in simple ways (often, in multiple simple ways), can cope with much greater apparent complexity.
To some degree, this is an issue of sub-fields. I work in atomic, molecular, and optical physics, where the problems we study generally involve a smallish number of atoms doing comprehensible things. Other fields rely much more heavily on sophisticated mathematical tricks to make their problems tractable, which makes it harder to tell stories about what’s going on. I took one class on Solid State, and after the first couple of weeks, I no longer had the foggiest idea what was going on in terms of actual electrons moving through solid materials– it was all “reciprocal lattice vectors,” which I still don’t understand– which made it a deeply unpleasant class all told.
I think this desire for simple conceptual pictures is not an issue of subfields. The mathematician Doron Zeilberger describes the great mathematician Gelfand – who worked in some exceedingly technical areas – as having a “unique approach to learning and teaching” that revolves around “giving the simplest possible example, and that Gelfand enforces in his famous seminar, by constantly interrupting speakers and making them explain clearly and simply”.
(The reciprocal lattice vector stuff simply sounds like it was badly taught.)
On the other hand, though, I think the link between success in physics and a good grasp of stories could be extended to many of the best and brightest regardless of research topic. Einstein’s real breakthrough with Special Relativity was a matter of storytelling– people knew before Einstein that Lorentz transformations would solve the problems with Maxwell’s Equations, but thought it was too weird. Einstein showed that not only was it the right solution, but it had to be that way, and he did it by providing stories to make it all make sense (again, see some earlier posts: one, two). Schroedinger’s equation is in some sense a story that makes Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics palatable (the theories are mathematically equivalent, but as I understand it, nobody could make heads or tails of Heisenberg’s stuff). And when you get down to it, what are Feynman diagrams but little stories about what happens to an electron as it moves from point A to point B?
Yes, in some sense, the equations are the main thing. But when you look at the history of physics, you find again and again that the real giants of the field are the people who matched an interpretation to the equations, who came up with stories to explain it all. Any fool with a computer can manipulate equations, but it takes real genius to explain what’s going on in a way that makes it make sense.
I don’t have a good answer to “What’s a photon?”, but at least I can say this: If you feel that interpretations and stories are an important part of physics, you’re in good company.