Physics and Story-Telling

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I've been re-reading two old paperbacks of mine The first is Lee Smolin's The
Trouble With Physics
. It’s about the workings of the Real World Out There, as
Smolin calls it. The second is E.V. Rieu's prose translation of Homer's epic poem
The Odyssey, an epic poem some 3000 years old -- the very first novel ever
written. It’s about adventures that make recent amusements like The Mask of Zorro
seem tame.

In a primitive sort of way I also follow developments in physics on the Web; particularly
in the Beyond the Standard Model Forum, where Marcus generates interesting threads
to satisfy his “ interest ... in reporting/analyzing... developments in basic physics”
for which reporting I’m very grateful. It strikes me that modern theoretical physics and
the writings of Homer have more in common than one might think : both are
descriptions of the perceived Real World Out There and how it works. Admittedly, the
stories differ greatly in language and perspective. Theoretical physics finds expression
in mathematical ratiocination rather than epic poetry. And it assumes that the Real
World Out There
is ruled by physical laws rather than the whims of the Greek
pantheon. But there are similarities between theoretical physics and the writings of
Ancient Greece: both satisfy our need to tell and be told stories about mysteries of
what now and long ago was perceived to be that World. Smolin lists five such
mysteries that have still to be resolved in theoretical physics. Homer attributes many
aspects of human behaviour (a mystery that fascinates us) to the meddling of Gods on
Mt. Olympus in human adventures and in physical happenings, like storms at sea. And
neither modern theoretical physics nor the Odyssey make verifiable predictions about
the future of The Real World Out There. Both therefore run the risk of being revealed
later as interesting fictions.

Telling and being told stories is just one of the things the forcing hand of evolution has
made us enjoy. It’s people stuff and our nature; we do it just because we can. Three
millennia ago Homer didn’t know that we’re just primates — the talking sort of large
African ape which, like many animals, needs to share individual perceptions about the
Real World Out There for personal benefit and the welfare of their species. Although in
this twenty-first century most theoretical physicists are well aware of our rather humble
status in the scheme of things, I suspect that they don’t think of their occupation
(creating effective and usually abstract models of the Real World Out There, using the
invented language of mathematics) as story-telling.

Let me give an example from simple stolid-state physics that encourages me to think of
physics theories as effective and convenient stories rather than deep discovered truths.
Descriptions of how crystalline metals behave lean heavily on the abstract concepts of
translational symmetry, reciprocal space and the Fermi surface. These concepts are
(very) convenient fictions rather than parts of the Real World Out There that we
experience directly. They don’t help much to understand liquid metals. Nevertheless
properties like electrical conductivity that are understood in terms of these abstract
crystal crutches aren’t suppressed by melting e.g. Mercury). The effective and limited
nature of successful theories that lean on Bloch waves in regular crystals not surprise
us, because these are ‘effective’ rather than fundamental stories.

Here’s a second example. The modern perceived Real World Out There includes
electrical currents and voltages that switch on and off in a repetitive way — I’m thinking
of square-wave voltages. Yet this aspect of the Real World (of elementary physics)
OutThere can be decomposed into a superposition of sinusoidal waves that can easily be
demonstrated and measured in an undergraduate laboratory. The harmonic waves
that comprise a square wave are arguably and individually as much a part of the Real
World Out There as their superposition itself. Indeed a bell-shaped pulse of voltage
can be decomposed into a superposition if infinitely long sinusoidal wave trains in the
same way. Which brings me to fundamental stories about particles and waves.

The question of whether electrons behave as particles or waves is the puzzle called the
particle-wave duality in Quantum Mechanics. It all depends on how you describe
electrons and their behaviour --- on the story you tell about a ‘localised object’ or a
‘non-localised probablity wave’ ; a story that suits a particular purpose. Usually in
physics it is a story that has predictive character and is therefore believable, in its
context. But the description you choose is in the end only a primate’s predictive story,
rather than an eternal truth.

Physics stories that are judged ‘fundamental’ are expected to mesh seamlessly over the
entire realm of the Real World Out There. For example, our best theory of gravity
(general relativity) is expected to merge in some as-yet undiscovered way with quantum
mechanics, to form a single fundamental whole. A less exotic example is the sensible
stories of classical and statistical thermodynamics, with their not-so-simple concepts of
temperature and entropy. These stories predictively describe the workings of collective
systems ranging from steam engines through the thermal properties of solids to the
entire observable universe. Thermodynamics is therefore judged quite fundamental ind
incontrovertible.

But nowadays theories are often acknowledged as “effective”, which means of limited
scope. To me this confirms that the physics stories we tell are just that — stories we
can expect to reliably describe for us selected domains of the Real World Out There;
those that we can access by observation and measurement — and not profound truths.
I’m suggesting here that physics stories are tales limited by the understanding that
evolution has made possible for us, rather than discovered eternal truths.

Perhaps there are no fundamental stories. Given our long history of concocting stories
that later turn out to present a fictitious picture of the Real World Out There, physics
has proved to be remarkably credible in a patchy sort of way. But, I suspect, problems
in reconciling stories like general relativity and quantum mechanics don’t yet deserve
the sort of respect accorded long ago to quarrels among members of the Greek
pantheon.

Stories that describe and correctly predict how the Real World Out There behaves, like
physics, have accelerated our evolutionary success (if one judges success by numbers,
as evolution seems to do). We therefore take physics very seriously. Perhaps too
seriously, in hoping for a single Grand Unified Theory or Theory of Everything. Lighten
up, folks – the Greek pantheon is a fiction and we’re just story-telling African primates
after all. Aren’t we?
 
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Answers and Replies

  • #2
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Usually in
physics it is a story that has predictive character and is therefore believable, in its
context. But the description you choose is in the end only a primate’s predictive story,
rather than an eternal truth.
But nowadays theories are often acknowledged as “effective”, which means of limited
scope. To me this confirms that the physics stories we tell are just that — stories we
can expect to reliably describe for us selected domains of the Real World Out There;
those that we can access by observation and measurement — and not profound truths.



What makes you think anybody is going to argue over these points?

We can't adequately refute neither determinism nor solipsism, so Truth must be something you "learn" when you die.
 
  • #3
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What makes you think anybody is going to argue over these points?

I'm glad you agree, then! Thanks.

We can't adequately refute neither determinism nor solipsism, so Truth must be something you "learn" when you die.
I have no intention of dying, and look forward to persisting in happy ignorance forever.
 
  • #4
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What is a fundamental truth? What is "The real world out there"? Why is Science so effective and predictive? What are the implications of this for the concept of truth? To what extent can we trust Scientific Ontology? If the "story" is not necessary, how does Science work? Could another intelligent species come up with something similar in terms of predictivity, but have a radically different "Story to tell", and assuming the two frameworks can be shown to be congruent with regards to prediction, what would this say about our "Stories?". Is structural knowledge the only possibility? IS the story necessary cognitively in order to grasp it?......Doesn't the assertion "all we are is apes" as a reference to evolution presuppose Science and its "story?"...Can aspects of a story be descriptive of "the real world out there" while other aspects are not? Is there a way to tell?...The fundamental point of course being, "dont take yourself too seriously" exist. "If a good dancer were to jump high we could all admire him, but if he were to insist he could fly, then he would bcome comic"
 

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