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Misunderstanding in physics

  1. Experimental setup

    0 vote(s)
  2. Measuring devices

    1 vote(s)
  3. Quantum uncertainty

    1 vote(s)
  4. Classical uncertainty

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  5. Theory/Interpretation

    14 vote(s)
  6. Philosophy/Metaphysics

    4 vote(s)
  7. Education/Outreach

    4 vote(s)
  8. Physics community

    2 vote(s)
  9. Scientific method

    1 vote(s)
  10. Other (please specify)

    9 vote(s)
  1. Sep 4, 2004 #1
    What causes the greatest misunderstanding in physics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 4, 2004 #2

    Tom Mattson

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    I think a main culprit is an over reliance on intuition. Our macroscopic, slow-moving everyday reality shapes our expectations of the world. Those who succeed in physics are those who can overcome the temptation of thinking that those expectations are sacred.

    Another chief culprit is an ignorance of mathematics, which is aided and abetted in this country by an atrociously deficient public school system.

    President Bush, when does The War On Ignorance begin? :grumpy:
  4. Sep 4, 2004 #3
    To be translated into the unfamiliar world, intuition can be accessed through appropriate metaphor, one that facilitates such insight with the bridge of imagery. For instance, the comparison between the musical string theory of Pythagoras and superstrings of today promotes efficiently the mathematically similar modern model.
  5. Sep 4, 2004 #4
    I voted other and this is the reason:

    Every scientific statement, or methodology, or theory or experimental measurement is accurate to the limit of the human perceptual ability. I suspect that this limitation may very well be tied to the original human form or to the way we are physically configured. And there is a widespread doubt whether we can explain and understand everything in our current human form.....
  6. Sep 5, 2004 #5
    I voted "other", what I call the "human factor". Not only do the limits of our perceptions limit physics, but the limits societies impose do so as well. As with anything people attempt, the worst opponent we have is ourselves. No one can fight us to a stalemate faster than ourselves.
  7. Sep 6, 2004 #6
    Expecting a result can blind the presented result, wanting to be right will do the same....
  8. Sep 6, 2004 #7
    Perhaps there will come a day when the human brain finds reprieve from this purgatory of Uncertainty... more likely, it will learn that this state of purgatory is a specific property of the brain and NOT of the physical world it percieves; relegating Uncertainty forever as an inescapable consequence of the human condition.
  9. Sep 6, 2004 #8
    Tom : you are so much helping me to keep trusting american citizens, as well as not to fear for the fate of the world ! :surprised: It feels good to hear inteligent voices, even though they do not come from your government. Thanks Tom. I also totally agree on the rest (less off-topic part) of your post :wink:

    1: do not overtrust intuition
    2: work the math from scratch

    I would also add less importantly :
    3: avoid loose analogies : analogies provide fast help to first understrand a concept, but one shall eventually be aware that analogies are just a fisrt step in order to fully grasp the concept.

    "since all those things are beyond our understanding, let's pretend we organized them"
  10. Sep 6, 2004 #9
    Misunderstanding of/in physics is perhaps ultimately a result of inadequate physics education (which can also subsume experience). This may be down to pupils (who may find this kind of work just too unnatural for them), teachers (who might choose to use sloppy analogies or overly-intuitive models) or society (which imposes a subtle agenda on those who exist within it, to be accepted or rejected, but certainly absorbed).

    Such a simplistic approach does not encompass the stubbornly self-taught or the rare genius for whom misunderstanding may simply be a result of "not getting out enough". Indeed, there is a real danger that theoretical progress which cannot be grounded in validatible experiment could lead simply to beauty rather than further understanding (which is itself rather different from misunderstanding, of course).

    If "Science Works", then most of the issues impeding further understanding will be ironed out over the long term, as personalities and whole cultures rise and fall. Personally, I'm more concerned about current misapplications of science (i.e. the military-industrial complex) than most of the misunderstandings - as a teacher I can generally cope with those!
    Last edited: Sep 6, 2004
  11. Sep 6, 2004 #10
    True....the 'H-Factor' (if you would be kind enough to permit me to abbreviate it) has always been the problem. It's an absolute nightmare! No one would ever appreciate this until you see the frustation on the faces of many intellectuals over the stalemate that you mentioned or on issues that have turned circular and stayed persistently so. Personally, I have in recent years retired to just watching people as they battle it out on circular debates. This is why I had no choice but to come to the above startling conclusion.
    Last edited: Sep 6, 2004
  12. Sep 8, 2004 #11


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    To me, this seems a rather pessimistic view. Look at all the wonders the "H-Factor" has allowed us to understand. Calling it a limit is really stating the obvious, since all "thinking" physical entities in the universe, no matter how complex and better wired than us, will never succeed at surpassing their perceptions.
  13. Sep 8, 2004 #12

    At least with me, this begs the question about our scientific/social endeavors, those that push such allied sciences as applied physics, artificial intelligence, symbiotics, and robotics ever forward toward fully functional independent models of we human beings; is whether we ARE or COULD create such a thing that is without such limitations of perception... it's just too eerie, thus too attractive an idea NOT to entertain.

  14. Sep 8, 2004 #13
    I am totally against any scientific research aimed solely at replicating the human intelligence or consciousness 'JUST FOR THE FUN OF IT'. My main concern is not about all the researches that you are listing.......by all means they are very necessary and must go on......but I am worrying about replicating it and making the carrier of such human ability totally independent and completely divorced from the human reality. If the outcomes of those researches are for a human-focused re-engineering of the human reality, then this must be fully welcomed. But I see no light in creating something that may very well outfox the human counterpart. Even if this were not schematically achievable, but the fact remains that we may accidently do so. That's my fear. I continue to find it senseless why we must first indendently replicate the human intelligence before commencing the crucial and most important project of re-engineering ourselves.
  15. Sep 8, 2004 #14

    My take on this is simply that this is happening by default: a consequence of the human ego. People around the world are working independently of any centrally controlled study toward this end. But, as you said, it will finally evolve as a series of accidents. A thought exercise I have used from time to time concerns, (brace yourself but don't throw anything at me JUST YET), the problem posed by intersteller travel...just for arguments sake let us suppose that some other form of cognitive intelligence like our own does exist somewhere 'out there'... the human form requires food, water, waste recycling, sex and the ability to stay SANE, and is biologically vulnerable to extremes in G loading, temperature, atmosphere...you get the idea.... now, just for snicks and grins let's say that some of the reports of UFOs truly do represent some other advanced lifeform... would they likely be of a biological nature, or a ...mechanical nature? Not wanting to be so narrow minded and completely devoid of vision I will not say that interstellar travel is impossible PERIOD... I will say that it is to our known physics and allied sciences at this time in OUR history... I wonder that IF ANY of these sightings, however slight in numbers MIGHT turn out to be of some other "intelligence and technology" that is beyond our present day capacity to understand... would they by necessity be cybernetic? I'd think yes. But then, I would also be surrendering to a probable ultimate fate for our own kind. Something I really, really find bothersome.
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2004
  16. Sep 8, 2004 #15


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    My interest in learning more than Newtonian physics started with reading "A Brief History of Time" and I can tell you that intuition/preconceptions are the biggest hump to get over. At first glance, neither Relativity nor QM make any sense. Accepting the reality of the evidence and the implications is a big step to take. From what I see in the TD forum, that's the biggest thing standing in the way.
  17. Sep 8, 2004 #16
    Good Question.........precisely this is what has puzzled me for years. Apparently, it seems as if we are thinking (and have always been thinking) that the only likely form of life is the biological one. You are right, for all we know, there is nothing which rules out the machine and quasi-machine forms of life being possible elsewhere in the universe. There are several issues involved here.


    We seem to be misled into thinking that only the conditions favourable to biological forms of life are possible. Therefore, we seem to have concentrated all our efforts and focus only in finding places where these right-conditions are possible. But what about other conditions of life? What about the possibility of a 'MULTI-CONDITION' form of life? What stops us from searching for or creating multi-condition forms of life?


    Also, we also tend to think that an intelligent life form (or every a superior type of life form) is limitted to or modelled around the current size of the human life form. Why must every intelligent life form be cut to the human physical size. In fact, there is this chilling reality that superior intelligent life forms may very well be microscopic or infra-scopic in size? What about the possibility of gigantic life forms of a cosmological scale? Supposing our own universe is a tiny part of a gigantic life form? These are the hard-headed questions that are often neglected.

    Precisely this is the reason why we must act fast scientifically to prepare to counter such possibilities. In my own opinion, we are better off concentrating on the science of man than on the science of needs. For the notion that we are alone in the universe, even with all the scientific data that are available, is not only naive but also fundamentally self-defeating and dangerous.
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2004
  18. Sep 8, 2004 #17
    What causes the greatest misunderstanding in physics? Laziness and lack of humility in the learner. Laziness because you didn't study the subject hard enough. Lack of humility because you think that reading a textbook or two (or worse, a popular book) makes you an expert.
  19. Oct 11, 2004 #18

    Les Sleeth

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    I want to both agree and disagree with you about intuition (there can be no doubt about preconceptions) because Tom initially said "over-reliance" on intuition, not that it was something to "get over." If you think intuition can play a powerful role in investigation, then we don't disagree.

    In my own attempts to ferret out the truth about something, especially something about which there are few facts, intuition is invaluable. It can provide clues about the general direction in which to look, and give one a sense about what fits and what doesn't. If intuition is used while in the generalist mode, or in the reductionist mode when facts are missing, then I think it can be incredibly useful.

    My opinion is that people are either too reliant on hard core reductionist thinking or they do too much intuitive thinking, and these are the people most at odds with each other. But just like a child develops best with both a father and a mother, so too is knowledge-seeking furthered best by both reductionist and intuitive thinking when they are applied to the appropriate situations that call for them.
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2004
  20. Oct 19, 2004 #19
    "Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth." -Albert Einstein

    I know you're thinking I'm about to spew some gawd-awful mess because of my name but I actually have a contribution to the conversation you might enjoy.

    Here's a link about the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) from a reputable site: physicsweb.org (with a pro-relativity bent... don't worry! )

    The title lead me to it in my ignorant pursuit of possible relativity alternatives but it's really not what the title seems at all. The author, Harry Collins, is head of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise and Science at the University of Wales, Cardiff, UK

    It's really about why the masses believe what they believe etc. A good read and pertinent.

    Bah! too many disturbances... forgot the link!

    *Note: Hoping to prove I actually have something useful to contribute to make up for my earlier infringement of the law *
  21. Oct 23, 2004 #20
    The naming of subjects before they are fully understood

  22. Oct 23, 2004 #21
    What causes the greatest misunderstanding in physics?
    LANGUAGE! Physicists talk about "Solid states" when they know there are no solids and atoms are mostly empty space. Astronomers talk about seeing the sun move across the sky when they know very well that it is not moving across the sky. Students are introduced to words with definitions that differ from common use such as FORCE or TELEPORTATION.
  23. Oct 23, 2004 #22
    I voted other. I think it is our brains that cause misunderstandings in physics. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that "People only see what they are prepared to see". I think this is important to scientific development. Scientists do have hypothesis before they do an experiment. And therefore when the experiment turns out to have slighty different results, scientists often blame on some human errors during the experiment. Also, most scientists believe that what the predecessors concluded are accurate, and their experiments are based on the conclusions of previous scientists, which might be wrong. From these we can see that it is our brains that cause the many misunderstanding in physics.
  24. Oct 25, 2004 #23
    This is not denied at all.....quite the contrary. The 'H-Factor' thesis does not neglect "HOW MUCH WE ARE ABLE TO KNOW OR HOW MUCH WE ALREADY KNOW", but rather it is about "HOW MUCH WE ARE UNABLE TO KNOW OR HOW MUCH IS YET TO BE KNOWN". Although, wuliheron talks about 'man being his own worst enemy' or 'man being his own obstacle on his life pathway', a much better and clearer way to put it is to say that "MAN'S WORST ENEMEY IS THE UNKNOWN". Look at and quantify, for example, the number of wars that we have fought and the number of atrocities that we have committed upon the human race since the advent of man, yet we always managed to scrape through and co-operate to co-exist. So in this very sense, human beings are not necessarily their own worst enemies. The worst would have to be the unkown. This is way I consistently urge the human race to start making preparations for all sorts of eventualities, especially those things that are arguably within our own capacities, such as the fundamental need to scientifically improve ourselves via structural and functional re-engineering.
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2004
  25. Oct 25, 2004 #24


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    If this is true, then there would be no advancement of our boundaries of knowledge, because all scientists ever want to do is uphold what they have been taught to be correct. We will still be holding on to Newtonian laws and thinking that the ether is there somewhere. We will not be studying about electron fractionalization, we will still think the highest critical temperature of a superconductor is no more than 35 K, etc.. etc.

    So it appears that you somehow did not wish to see what are obvious contradictions to your statement.

    This illustrates the greatest misunderstanding in physics - the ignorance of the subject matter, and the ignorance of the workings of physicists. People who are apt to make questions such as these VERY seldom are themselves physicists, come in contact with physicists often, or even understand how physicis works. All the conclusions about what physicists do are based on a PERCEIVED idea of how they work, and mainly derived from popular media.

    I have read through this thread for a while and resisted the urge to respond earlier. But frankly, the lies and BLATANT misconception being pilled on is way too much. I am amazed that some of you do not even consider the fact that your knowledge on this matter is faulty, that you barely come in contact with the very people you are making judgements on! Considering the degree of validity of your ideas, I wonder how you can conscientiously make such conclusion!

  26. Oct 25, 2004 #25


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    I voted other
    If I should make a rather speculative point about what causes the greatest misunderstanding, it is the conception that maths&physics are terribly difficult disciplines which only geniuses can fully penetrate into.
    This flawed notion is, I believe, quite common; that doesn't make it truer.
    In addition, the notion is rather self-fulfilling, in two ways:
    1)"Ordinary" people will think they'll never understand any of it, and hence, shies away, with the result that their ignorance will start produce misconceptions in them when they think about physics situations.
    2) Those who do try to study it, with this notion in mind, approaches the subject wit
    a misplaced reverence, in particular, they'll distrust if they themselves have understood something, and rather searches for some "deeper" meaning they haven't yet ascended to. A "meaning" which they'll rarely find.
    A lot of physics&maths-practice is simple routine&drudgery, which in intellectual content is not particularly "deep".
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