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Popular science sometimes feels meaningless

  1. Oct 3, 2006 #1
    In my work, I sometimes try to explain what a plasma is, and how it behaves, to people not knowing much about physics. Now and then I start to think about what I am saying. I talk about electrons and ions as balls which collide and feel the elctric field, and so on. But all this is just a picture to help us work out theories. What an electron or an ion is, nobody knows. To think of them as balls and in some cases treat them as balls in calculations works to predict their behaviour. In other cases, you have to treat them as waves.

    I get the feeling that the public really think of physics as being able to describe the world as it is. When I talk about electrons as balls, they really believe that it is what the real world looks like. No wonder they get confused by quantum theory with its particle duality. Don't you think they would get disappointed if I made it very clear that this is just a way of thinking. I mean, what is the point to try to understand something if it is just a way of thinking to make predictions? They are not interested in some tool for working out theories, they just want to know what the real world looks like. Even I can feel some disappointment when I think about that all we can do is predict the nature to some accuracy.

    What is your thoughts on this?

  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 4, 2006 #2


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    I very much take your point, Daniel. I wonder if you could use the analogy of Federal and State government, which the public (the US public at least) does grasp. The Federal theory, QM, has it's way of expressing the nature of the electron, which in general trumps the State way (plasma physics), but in discussing only plasma physics, we can use its partial insights as if they were the whole story, and not say false things about what plasmas do.
  4. Oct 4, 2006 #3
    I know what you're talking about, not from a scientists perspective but from a laymans one.

    I think many people are very visual by nature, and that humans in general feel that they never really understand something until they've seen it with their own eyes.

    So yeah I guess people just feel hopeless because they know these things are so small we will never be able to see them outside of artwork or models..
  5. Oct 5, 2006 #4
    Yes, the analogy with the government could work. But then what about QM? It's also just a picture to help us make predictions.

    Let me make an analogy with history. We want to construct a "theory" that explains some occurrence in today's society. Let's say that something that happened in the past could explain it. So we build a scenario from past to present that, at the end, leads to the occurence we wanted to explain. Now, we don't know if all what we made up in history ever happened, but it seems reasonable, and it explains everything perfectly. I would regard the scenario we made up rather unsatisfactory, since it doesn't describe what really happened, or what the world looks like.

    We have constructed QM and it works, but we don't know if it describes the real world. For laymen, wouldn't this be as unsatisfactory as the scenario above?

    OK, this may be a bit far-fetched (and please put me back on track if I am way out), and you might not share my personal view of physics, but it is interesting to talk about and it is not often I get to discuss these things.

    For me, theories that work to make predictions is all I need. In my research I don't have to bother if the theories describe the real world or not. But it would be interesting to hear what people in QM think of their research. Are they trying to describe the real world? Maybe this question is worth a new thread.
  6. Oct 5, 2006 #5


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    I pretty much agree with you about physical models, but if you are that skeptical about "quantum reality" then it's going to be hard for you to explain it to people who aren't looking for handy hypotheses but expect science to at least try to give them the truth.
  7. Oct 6, 2006 #6
    Yes, and that is my problem. I do not think that we should quit with popularisation, because it is important that the public have an insight into research, and it attracts students to science. But maybe authors of popular books should be more careful and explain these things to the reader.

    Well, I guess I just have to live with this.

    Thanks a lot for taking the time to discuss this!
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