Monday, March 06, 2006

You can’t teach physics to a dog

“Einstein refused to accept quantum mechanics fully. And even Niels Bohr, one of the central pioneers of quantum theory, and one of it’s strongest proponents, once remarked that if you do not get dizzy sometimes when you think about quantum mechanics, then you have not really understood it.”

Brian Greene, The elegant universe – superstrings, hidden dimensions and the quest for the ultimate theory, p. 88.

It took a little over a fortnight, but I’ve finally finished the book on string theory which Nimbos got me for Christmas.

The book is about how clever people have spent the last 100 years trying to tie together two mutually exclusive ideas – one about how gravity works, the other about how light comes in lumps.

I’ve always been a bit of a plodder in understanding clever stuff, especially in the “real” subjects where you can’t just make it up. For the last two thirds of the book I was mostly just reading the individuals words and hoping that somehow my subconscious would put it all together later.

(Which is more or less my technique with Dombey & Son in my teens. And it worked.)

Greene admits himself that things get pretty weird and he’s often advising the layman to skip ahead (which I didn’t as I’m tough). Physics at the smaller-than-the-atom stage is counter-intuitive to an ape brain that sees in three dimensions, (a sense developed, I guess, from falling out of trees).

There seems, to me at least, an element of creative accountancy involved in string theory – that is, moving numbers around the page until the story adds up. That may just be my missing the sums, though (which I’d not have a hope of intuiting). The mathematics involved gets so complex – Greene says – that a lot of the weird stuff has to be taken on trust.

The horrific mechanical QuarksHauling my eyes over speak of pan-dimensional Calabi-Yau shapes and the different kinds of oddly named quark (up, down, hot, carrot and Basingstoke), I felt the same “well, okay” response to the minutiae of theology. I broadly, for example, understand the difference between homoousios and homoiousio (and did before it was in Dr Who, and all) but not why it matters to anyone whether Jesus is exactly or pretty much like his dad.

But strings, Greene insists, aren’t philosophy. It’s all very well saying there’s this very, very small stringy bits that waggles in seven dimensions we can’t sense. The clever bit is working out how to test the theory, to prove that they really are there. Which is what Top Men like my mate Dr Kelly are struggling to fathom out now.

Am now working through Greene’s attention-deficit TV show version of the book, which Psychonomy kindly leant. “They can smell reality!” declares one of the talking-head boffins.

Yet for all I’ve rolled my eyes at the lame jokes and set-ups – or is that an epileptic response to the flashy graphics? – I can still nod my way through it comprehendingly. Yeah, a bit to my amazement, I get it.

So, in fact, no I don’t. QED.


Nimbos said...

Top scientists like Mr Kelly may be trying to fathom out all those sub-atomic bits in clever ways but I love the idea that they're trying to do it by smashing those particles to bits. It's like trying to work out how a watch works by hitting it with a hammer and seeing what bits fly-off. Lots of fun and we haven't found a better way.

Simon Cleveland said...

I liked the book:

- Simon Cleveland

0tralala said...

Nimbos: Good point! Archaeology makes sense of the past by studying broken stuff, but would baulk at actually doing the breaking...

Simon: Yes, that does look good. Will add it to the ever-growing list to read...

psychonomy said...

"Am now working through Greene’s attention-deficit TV show version of the book, which Psychonomy kindly leant."

That was a give, not a lend. You're quite welcome.