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Shut Up and Calculate!

  1. Jul 21, 2010 #1
    Just a general topic here. Hope I don't offend anyone. Curious to see what everyone else thinks about this.

    I read Lee Smolin's 'Trouble with Physics' a certain amount of time ago and found myself agreeing with him in many respects. Correct me if I'm wrong, but is the physics community as divide as Lee depicts? He makes it sound like 90% of physicists these days get their doctorate in some advanced String Theory field that lacks any sort of physical observational evidence.

    I also more recently read Feynman's books (I forget which one as I've read the majority of his works) and he seems to come from the opposite end of the spectrum in many respects. He believes in 'Shut up and Calculate, don't ask why' type of physics, as his book quotes himself. He also goes on to explain how it takes 8 years of drawing lines in graduate school until students are ready to fully solve QM problems.

    I really enjoy Feynman's works and ideas and think he is one of the top physicists we've seen in a while but have to completely disagree with him on the whole 'Shut up and Calculate' idea. I mean if Einstein or Newton or Galileo were drawing lines to work their way up the QM problem solving tree until they were 30, would they have come up with their intuitive thought experiments that led to the fundamental world changing theories we use today? I tend to think not.

    Feel free to agree or disagree or disregard.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 21, 2010 #2
    Einstein, Newton or whoever, they did draw lines for quite some time before coming up with genuine ideas on their own. Most important in this forum in particular (I can not say for sure for Feynman), I would suggest "calculate first, and we'll discuss the interpretation afterwards". Too often around here, we see discussions without underlying substance. "Calculate first and discuss the interpretation afterwards" is exactly what my first teacher in QM told me. She was only too right.
  4. Jul 21, 2010 #3
    "Calcualte first" unfortunately wouldn't apply to physicists such as Einstein and Smolin. But the story of the advice your QM teacher told you is a great example of 'The Trouble with Physics'. Recommended read if you have time.
  5. Jul 21, 2010 #4
    "Shut up and calculate" is the physicist's knee-jerk reaction to the question - 'What is the universe made of'?

    This is what everyone here is interested in, but it's also kind of hopeless.
  6. Jul 21, 2010 #5
    If there is no more room in academia for dissenting opinions then it is time for a revolution!
  7. Jul 21, 2010 #6


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    The equations are the most accurate description of an observation, and with them come basic logical expressions.

    When you start conjecturing about a topic and don't even understand the basic tenants of the logical expression, it's frustrating for people who do.

    And specifically, I'm referrering to mathematical statements based in observation. Not string theory (which my U, for instance, doesn't even offer classes for)
  8. Jul 21, 2010 #7


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    Ahaha, humanino is the only physicist posting in this thread. :tongue2:
  9. Jul 21, 2010 #8
    No, I skimmed through it, and I am not interested in it at all. I prefer physics books.
  10. Jul 21, 2010 #9


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    Those thought experiments were the results of a lot of "shut up and calculate" time. There is typically a REASON to have a thought experiment in the first place, and it's typically because there's some set of calculations that are stareing at you that aren't what you perceive as reality.

    Relativity wasn't formulated by dreaming up out of thin air "what if gravity is best described by some 4-dimensional mathematical description that can be described like some sort of fabric..." and then make calculations fit that description. The seed of the idea was in what was seen in the math.
  11. Jul 22, 2010 #10
    Hi there,

    Can I dare to ask, why would such a theory apply to Einstein. Do you really believe the guy was a complete dreamer, that had no clue about hard core mathematics.

    Ok, he was not a mathematician, but to develop a theory in the brownien movement (that enabled him to win the nobel prize), he had to sit there and do the calculation first.

    Where Einstein was truly a genius was his ability to give a correct interpretation of his calculation.

  12. Jul 22, 2010 #11


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    It is amusing to consider what the actual inventor of this famous aphorism thinks about it.

    David Mermin - who railed against colourless and humorless approaches to physics in Boojums all the way through: communicating science in a prosaic age - was talking about the cultural attitudes imposed upon him, rather than an attitude he really endorsed.

    As he now says apologetically....

    And would Feynman even have said it, as widely believed?

    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  13. Jul 22, 2010 #12
    Ok so Mr. Einstein was pretty good at math. But remember there were thousands at the time who were better than him. So being the best at 'shutting up and calculating' doesn't seem to produce productive results.

    And as far as a dreamer, in his first major breakthrough (SR), he, himself, Mr. Einstein writes about his famous train thought experiment, which led to a simple algebra calculation involving triangles (which a smart 8th grader can solve). Thinking about light, then calculating what was going on, led to a breakthrough unlike any we've seen to date...

    Yes. He specifically says so in one of his books (sorry I don't have the collection on me but am sure he said it because it struck me as odd especially having just read 'The Trouble with Physics').
  14. Jul 22, 2010 #13

    Hi there,

    It's fine to be a dreamer. As a matter of fact, you need to be. But don't forget that if you want people to follow you train of ideas, you need to be able to put them to good use. And, in science, you need to shut and calculate first.

  15. Jul 22, 2010 #14
    On his last blackboard was also written "what I cannot create, I do not understand" and "know how to solve every problem that has been solved". If I understand what he meant, one has to know how to build every solution from scratch to claim understanding of them.

    You only use anecdotal pieces of evidence and authority argument. This is not very convincing. Again, you say "other could calculate better than him and did not come up with such important results". That changes nothing : there has never been in the history of science a physics revolution coming from somebody unable to understand what had previously been found, that is, unable to do calculations. First calculate, then discuss the calculation. Being able to calculate is not sufficient, sure. But it is necessary.
  16. Jul 22, 2010 #15


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    No there wasn't. First of all, remember that Einstein and co were active where "physics" was a much,much smaller field than now meaning it didn't take nowhere near as long to study all the basic material (most of the physics that existed in 1905 is today covered in the first 1-2 years of a degree in physics).
    Secondly, Einstein was a very competent theoretical physicists who had learned from some of the best scientists of his era, just look at some of his lesser known (but very good) work in e.g. statistical physics; some of it is very much "nuts and bolts" theoretical physics and is nowhere near as "visionary" as SR and GR. So, no, Einstein was most definitely not a dreamer...
  17. Jul 22, 2010 #16
    First off, I'm not trying to get personal with anyone as my aim is simply to discuss a topic that I've always wondered about.

    Agreed but with an asterisk. See why in comments below.

    That's the hard part for me to accept. Granted I don't have a PHD is physics, I took the first 3 years of university physics and math at a top ranked university. We covered everything through basic QM.

    *back to the asterisk : "One has to know how to build every solution from scratch to claim an understanding of them". I agree and this is what turned me off to physics. The field has tens of thousands of professionals now, as opposed to Einsteins time when you could work through everyones work in a few years (see quote above). To work through everyone's string theory work and everyone's theory on QM would take a lifetime. The trouble with physics to me is that all of these QM interpretations COULD be correct, so which ones do you focus your time on? The one most popular at the time?

    That is why I agree with Smolin and Einstein and Newton who looked at problems through both a mathematician and philosophers lens.'Shut up and Calculate' just doesn't seem right to me.

    I disagree. If you read any biography on Einstein, he speaks with enthusiasm about his first passion : PHILOSOPHY. If philosophers don't dream, I don't know who does...
  18. Jul 22, 2010 #17
    Einstein was not just a dreamer. Doing calculation is not sufficient. "Shut up and calculate" is appropriate to use when there is an imbalance between the amount of philosophy and the amount of calculation, when the amount of calculation is not enough to back up the philosophical discussion. Smolin's book is not a physics book, it is a personal opinion on the sociology of physics research. It is not true that it takes a lifetime to study string theory before one can produce research result : there are young researchers in the field.

    Besides, you seem to describe physics as if the only problem in physics was to quantize gravity. Physics is much wider that this narrow specific field. There are many very active areas where one does not need to worry about such philosophical choices. To me, we live in times when physics is even more exciting than at Einstein's time.
  19. Jul 22, 2010 #18
    If you read any biography on Einstein, you will know that right after his work started to receive publicity (at times when antisemitism was widespread) the majority of professional physicists would harshly criticize the part of the work dealing with the photoelectric effect and relativity, based on the amount of philosophy it consisted in. Even when Einstein received the Nobel prize, Planck would still dismiss the photoelectric effect interpretation BTW, despite the fact the Planck was one of the first to recognize Einstein's work. Ultimately, this can be understood mostly because they did not fully appreciate the depth of significance in the calculations.
  20. Jul 22, 2010 #19


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    Yes, please provide the reference for where he says this. Mermin says he invented the quote and can find no trace of it in Feynman's writings.
  21. Jul 22, 2010 #20


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    not that I support the opposin position, but:

    What about deBroglie? I was always underthe impression he was like "lol, if light can be a particle, then why can't matter be a wave, haha!"
  22. Jul 23, 2010 #21
    Well looks like no one agrees with Lee Smolin or I and thinks Physics is progressing in the right direction. That's all I really wanted to find out.

    Interesting...thank you all
  23. Jul 30, 2010 #22
    Not to beat a dead horse, but I was reading an article today on Bell and found out Philosophy was his first passion as well. Funny Einstein and Bell, two of the greatest thinkers of our time, first fell in love with philosophy.

    Funny also that Bell considered QM the greatest FAPP (For all practical purposes, a term he coined) theory of all time.

    Obviously not but it is the biggest problem. And that I hope you can admit.
  24. Jul 30, 2010 #23


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    This thread talks at cross-purposes. There are two different points to be made.

    1) "Philosophy" is always required to ground new science. It is the vague scaffolding of exploratory thought that later becomes crystallised into some precisely expressed model. Usually there will be some powerful imagery or analogy (like replacing point particles with vibrating loops). There is a sense of how things may fit into a shape even before that shape is exactly expressed. And once the model has been constructed, then all the philosophy - the grounding intuition - can be discarded and the model used in "shut up and calculate" fashion.

    The inventor must have been a philosopher, but the later users may be just technicians with no interest in the reason why their tools might work.

    2) Humanino's point seemed to be about the need for mastery of a field before you can do creative work in that field. And indeed, this is standard wisdom in the psychology of creative genius. You have to make the journey to the edge of current knowledge to then be ready to take a step further into the darkness.

    It is important to note that the mastery does not have to be in the same field. Sometimes the big breakthroughs come when someone is a master in one field, then moves into a new area and can see how the ideas of one domain can now solve the problems that exist in another.

    However the general point is still that breakthroughs need a solid grounding. You have to know the rules before you can do a good job of breaking them.
  25. Aug 5, 2010 #24

    Well, as far as "shut up and calculate" is concerned, and as far as an interpretation is needed, it isn't going to come around as long as QM is a complete theory. That may not always be the attitude in the qm sub-forum, but they are chasing a red herring with those "interpretations" if the theory is complete.

    If there is no underlying reality, the interpretation of QM lies somewhere between totally impossible and very likely impossible, no matter what breakthru is made or what kind of experts you gather around. The way our logic works prohibts us from drawing an interpretation of fundamental levels of reality(i am not sure if the experts are always aware of this point). If such is the case with the completeness of qm, the theory of everything is as likely as the cow that jumps to the Moon.

    Either we peel another layer of the onion of reality and explain QM or we are stuck here pop-eyed doing the shut up and calculate. Even then, provided that the new level of reality is fundamental, there would be still be no interpretation.

    Philosophically speaking, the dream of explaining and interpreting the fundamental level with our usual tools --the so-far successful causal-reductionistic logic, makes as much sense as teaching pigs to fly. Sure, you could kill your spare time trying, but pigs aren't going to fly.
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2010
  26. Aug 5, 2010 #25


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    So now you agree with me that the interesting place to be working is on a more holistic model of logic - such as the systems approach to causality :tongue2:.

    The mechanical approach (classical mechanics, relativitisic mechanics, quantum mechanics) is based on a set of clear metaphysical principles - locality, atomism, monadism, determinism, mechanicalism (yes, QM does break some of these principles radically, and yet that is also because it is an attempt to get even close to them).

    The mechanical approach to causality is not wrong. It is indeed a very successful brand of modelling.

    But QM is one of the things that also reveal its limits rather starkly. To tackle the universe as a whole, as a system, you would indeed need another kind of logic better suited to the task.

    But because our logic is also our thinking, our mental habit by which we already view the world, it is in fact very difficult for people to make the change.
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