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Understanding without using math

  1. Apr 9, 2015 #1
    [Mentor's note - the posts in this thread have been split out from the thread https://www.physicsforums.com/threa...ctromagnetism-in-simple-laymans-terms.807607/ so that we can answer the original poster's question in that thread]

    Seriously, can we wait until physicists actually understand and agree on a bit more to declare that there is "no way" for a "layperson" to understand the pieces of physics? Don't give me the "it's impossible" argument because we all know that one does not often hold up for very long. If the recent breakthroughs in quantum physics have reminded us of anything, it's just that

    Quote: I agree that it seems that way, and I sympathize, but don't be fooled: that is a path ensnared with pitfall and djinn. You can get a hand-wavey pop-sci type of description that may begood enough for entertainment purposes but there are already lots of those so why not just use one of the others?

    Sounds a bit too "hand wavey"

    a belief exists that true understanding of anything is only obtainable through restraint or dissolution of ego which leaves more room for appreciation of beauty. No need to ask "why" when complete picture is seen. Many instances where complex systems interact and result in a something like a simple, beautiful shape we are already familiar with.

    Linguistics, for example, may prove to be a historically neglected gateway to new insights into physics. Mathematics can be communicated using many different systems and I believe that the most efficient have yet to be discovered.

    Having said that, I, on behalf of the scientifically interested members of the human race, if I may, commend the suggestion of Feynman's descriptions. Pretty spot on from what I and almost all of my trusted sources have gathered.

    Mathematics, by nature, relies on encoding reality. Gauss is also the said by some to be father of cryptography. :) Imagine if we had to spell out the quantity C's real name every time we wrote it. Hundreds of extra years needed. I also totally agree that effort or at least attention and time is a prerequisite for understanding.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 9, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 9, 2015 #2
    I'm not sure where the 'dissolution of ego' comes in to it, although I'm sure there can be cases of a person having a hard time accepting a theory which is contrary to some cherished intuition which they have.
    Fred Hoyle, highly respected in many fields, insisted that his notion of a static Universe was true, despite mounting evidence that BBT was consistent with observation, while his steady state Universe was not.

    Then again you can have a proposition which is easily understood both mathematically and literally.
    2+2 = 4 (mathematically).
    (:)):)) + :)):)) = :)):)):)):))) literally/figuratively.


    I can't see anyone having ego problems with that.
     
    Last edited: Apr 9, 2015
  4. Apr 9, 2015 #3
    In these days of incredible technology I see no reason to "have to know" the math as someone who uses it in their field regularly would. It is actually easier in my opinion to see images for which you can manipulate variables and see "simulated" results almost instantly. The next better system I could imagine would somehow know your weaknesses and determine the best way to emphasize your faults and correct them through visual stimulation. Oh, but that's PF's member's jobs. :-p Plenty of threads emphasizing exactly how difficult I as many others have proven that task can be! With quantum physics there really isn't any clear way to depict what occurs because it is best described as "purely mathematical relationships", EMR being the obvious example.
     
  5. Apr 9, 2015 #4

    sophiecentaur

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    We don't have to wait to discover if someone does or doesn't get the meaning of a piece of modern Physics. It will be pretty clear if they don't understand a particular model. It is another issue as to whether that model is a good one, of course.
    A 'lay person' is defined as someone who doesn't have 'the knowledge' so, by definition, they will not understand stuff as well as someone with the knowledge. Many people have their own private theories and think they have sussed out parts of Science. The acid test is whether a particular theory actually stands up to the scrutiny of observation and experimental results; can it actually predict things? That's not being elitist; it's being rigorous.
     
  6. Apr 9, 2015 #5

    sophiecentaur

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    It is true to say that you can 'use' the results of advanced mathematical theory - as you can use a piece of software to help design a bridge or a circuit. But whether that constitutes 'understanding', is questionable and can depend on the particular case. There are many mathematical tricks that people use (solving fancy integrals, for instance) that are usually done by 'turning the handle' of an analytical procedure. They don't necessarily know how it's done but they are doing a lot more than just arm waving and they can claim to have good knowledge and understanding of the topic. However, the Maths-phobic or Maths-Averse will struggle from the very start and is unlikely to get very far with even the most basic bits of first degree Physics.
     
  7. Apr 9, 2015 #6
    Great but you missed my point. Maybe I was not clear enough. I am saying that it cannot be deemed impossible to explain physics to a layperson without using mathematics. Right now some of the explanations are complicated for many pieces of the grand puzzle but don't be surprised if a simple theory pulls it all together. Not yet possible... Better... Impossible is a word we should use with care these days

    Also, as we learn more about nerves and build smaller and smaller chips, we are clearly getting closer to having the ability to just download info into the mind. Who would have thought that green pulsed lasers would stimulate infrared vision in humans a few years back... Nerves are possibly sound waves now??? Magnetism and sound and heat linked in unforeseen ways... Gimme a break. Telling people they can't do something without our prescription for maths is... You decide. Please just look up that talk by the kid on Ted... Was it "forget everything you know"? before Feynman diagrams, do you know what it took to describe particle collisions?
     
    Last edited: Apr 9, 2015
  8. Apr 9, 2015 #7
    Also hard time accepting a theory that says what we spent four years of uni getting drilled into our heads or twenty years after that is flawed. Or even worse, what if it's easy to understand for everyone?
     
  9. Apr 9, 2015 #8
    I tried explaining how -2 times 2 is -4 to my wife a few days ago. I had a very clear example... I take 2 apples from you, that is -2. Now I do that twice... that is times 2. She didn't get it.
     
  10. Apr 9, 2015 #9

    russ_watters

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    Since math is the language of physics, it most certainly can be.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 9, 2015
  11. Apr 9, 2015 #10

    Nugatory

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    How seriously would you take a student of French literature who neither spoke nor read French and had studied no European history? There's a minimum amount of background that is needed to approach any subject. Just as some minimal competence in Elizabethan English is required to discuss Shakespeare, some minimal competence in mathematics is required to discuss physics.
     
  12. Apr 9, 2015 #11
    Math is the most accurate and limited bias language but it is not the only factor in understanding physics. You can plot forces and trajectories all day long and still not be able to shoot a 3 point shot. Would an NBA all-star benefit on the court from a physics lesson? It's easy to calculate frequency change from doppler shift and plot the change as a horn passes by but it doesn't seem to capture the essence of the experience...the crest of the intensity and the pitch rising, the "smear" of the tone changing lower, more quickly as it passes closer, almost like you can "feel" the doppler wave crashing by you. I don't even think I could write yet when I heard it the first time.
     
  13. Apr 9, 2015 #12

    russ_watters

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    Are you really suggesting NBA players understand physics?
     
  14. Apr 9, 2015 #13
    I'm sure they understand how inflation pressure of rubber spheres affects collision elasticity, perhaps just not in a mathematical respect. All I'm trying to emphasize is that zero math does not equal zero understanding of physics. Physics usually hits everyone the same way the first time. A cold slap and a dry breath.
     
  15. Apr 9, 2015 #14

    russ_watters

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    Not zero, but not much.
     
  16. Apr 9, 2015 #15
    I guess the more I think about it any "game" with isolated conditions only emphasizes certain characteristics of physical properties so it is not easily applied to other situations. A true understanding of collision physics, like in weapons for example, requires a ton of math and physics these days. Celestial collisions, I couldn't imagine the math involved yet at this point, not much to say without it!
     
  17. Apr 10, 2015 #16

    sophiecentaur

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    I think you are allowing your Maths-Averse attitude to cloud the issue. The fact is that Maths is a language that is tailored well to Physical (and many other) problems. In one line of Maths, you can say as much as with a whole paragraph of conventional language. Why do you think Maths has been developed in the way it has? Scientists in the past had to invent their own notation for the purpose. It wasn't just a smartarse exercise to put the above other mortals. Can people really justify avoiding simple Calculus to describe the way things change with time, just because you find Maths is a bit difficult? Maths makes things simpler, not more complicated.

    Your example of the Feynman diagram is not relevant to the argument against Maths. That diagram is only a very shorthand description and has frequently been misinterpreted (many times on PF, actually) and used to come to all sorts of wrong conclusions about the nature of the particles involved. Very useful but not enough to 'explain' anything, in fact.
     
  18. Apr 10, 2015 #17

    A.T.

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    I agree. Scientists very often use all kinds of diagrams to visualize the underlying math. But you need the math to create the diagrams
     
  19. Apr 10, 2015 #18

    A.T.

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    This seems like a semantic quibble about the word "understand". You could also say an ostrich "understands" very effectively the bio-mechanics of biped locomotion, just not in a mathematical respect. But this type of "understanding" is not what physics is about, because it's not general enough to be applied to other situations.
     
    Last edited: Apr 10, 2015
  20. Apr 10, 2015 #19

    anorlunda

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    That is far too broad. Some physics can be described by natural language, but not all physics. Quantum mechanics and relativity in particular stand out. Our languages and the common sense encoded in our neurons are tuned to ordinary experience. Quantum mechanics and relativity are too far removed from ordinary experience to visualize linguistically.
     
  21. Apr 14, 2015 #20
    Impossible. You're right... The case is closed. Education, neural interfaces, notation of mathematics, and the human race in general have all peaked. No more progress. Thanks for the reminder. Why don't yu teach children that too? I'm maths averse. Being good at maths is not how I got through my physics degree
     
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