Tuesday, October 04, 2011
Why I'm not a physicist but I still read physiscs books
Although I participated in physics contests in secondary school, I was not really into it until I started high-school where, at physics, Mr. Bararu was the best professor I ever had. He was funny, but also inspiring and his teaching methods (e.g. open books exams, grading by the Gaussian curve) were revolutionary at that time. He tried hard to lure us into physics, as there was already a mathematics gang in the class (as the contests in math start much earlier, in the fourth grade as opposed to those in physics which start in seventh grade) and on the other hand we were a computer science intensive class. I still remember his arguments that we study math in order to apply it in physics and that chemistry it's just about mixing stuff and checking its color and smell. All went very well until one day he tried to solve a problem in front of us and he just failed. He put all the forces in the described situation, did the computation, but the result was different than the one in the book. Then he tried some different settings of forces until he found one that matched the expected result. That was really odd for me, as I was used to the way of solving problems logically, starting from premises and applying different logical techniques to reach the conclusion. That annoyed me so much that I gradually started loosing interest and by the eleventh grade I didn't even go to physics contests anymore. I was back to mathematics just in time for the highly abstract algebra with groups, rings and corps which I liked most. Only much later on when I read the Objective Knowledge of Sir Karl Popper I fully realized how physics works, how we are constantly make educated guesses (i.e. theories) so that they fit our observations of the surroundings as much as possible. On the other hand, the reality around us is so complex to describe that one needs to use highly simplified models to ever compute something about it. So if mathematics is the poetry of science, the physicists are the story tellers that describe what happens around us. And these stories of big bang, black holes, curved space-time, vibrating strings and quanta are always fascinating me. So here I am again, this time with a book that tells the story of quantum mechanics theory, the building blocks which led to it and its huge impact on our civilization: In Search of Schrödinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality by John Gribbin. The story telling of this author is good, with the drama of various people involved and their struggle to get a grip on this weird phenomena they were unfolding. Quantum mechanics is still a mister as the given interpretations are far away from what we normally expect from the world to behave like, but that's all we have for now: a grand casino where at every point in space and time dice are rolled to determine the next step. You just have to play the game!