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Was Einstein too optimistic?

  1. Sep 18, 2008 #1
    Was Einstein too optimistic?

    I’m beginning to suspect that this philosophical view is nonsense. There seem to be
    many aspects of the physical world that are really difficult to understand and fully
    accept. But then lots of people grasp stuff better than I do.

    I’ve been trying to devise a way of finding out if people, especially those with a
    philosophical approach, agree that Einstein’s statement was justified or not. I’ve here
    listed in an attempted neutral sort of way some things I’ve have battled with and failed to fully grasp at one time or another. The list I’ve compiled is incomplete (I’m puzzled about many more things than I list) but because this is a physics forum, the list biased that way.

    Here is a list of eight puzzling aspects of the physical world that some folk seem to
    comprehend and accept. But some people don’t. How do they strike you?

    1. When ‘elementary particles’ like electrons pass one at a time through two slits and
    impact a screen as localised particles. Yet their separate impacts are distributed like
    diffracted waves.

    2. Quantum systems are supposed to exist as a probabilistic superposition of states
    until somebody measures one of their observable properties. The system may then
    'collapse' into a single state, so preserving the separate integrity of system and
    observer. But perhaps there are multiple physical realities that combine a superposed
    state of system and observer.

    3. Every observer experiences a (possibly unique) physical world in which distance and
    time (and therefore speed) are operational concepts personal to that observer. There is
    no such thing as a unique and universal ‘physical reality’ out there.

    4. If you travel to Alpha Centauri and back and your watch tells you one second has
    elapsed, you will find that your twin, who stayed at home, has aged more than
    you have.

    5. It’s not possible to accelerate matter until it can be measured to be traveling faster
    than light. Therefore kinetic energy must be thought of as stored mass that increases
    with measured 'speed'. Mass and energy are taken to be equivalent, as a working

    6. Once upon a time -- very long ago -- the universe was a perfectly isotropic and
    homogeneous, perhaps spatially infinite and ultra high-energy thing.

    7. The biological phenomenon of Batesian_mimicry in say, butterflies, that makes
    some of them look as if they have been exquisitely designed to look dangerous,
    evolved by pure happenstance.

    8. The odd social behaviour of Australian Bowerbirds and their fascination with the
    colour blue, is hardwired stuff. Their behaviour evolved in a Darwinian way, just as sociobiologists suppose many of our own behaviours did.

    A scoring scheme along the lines I’ve set out below might be a way of seeing how
    positive or negative your opinion of Einstein’s statement is. I’ve arbitrarily assigned
    these scores for possible views.

    4 : I understand and accept this aspect of nature, fully and fundamentally
    3 : I accept it as the reasonable justified view of experts:
    2 : I believe it because in textbooks or by teachers I’m told it’s so:
    1 : It’s probably correct but details need amplifying or modifying:
    0 : No comment; I don’t know, or the proposition is badly put:
    -1: It’s probably wrong -- at least it’s not the whole truth or all the truth.
    -2: It’s just the way things are, as created by Someone.
    -3: I have my own theory about this.
    -4: This is simply incredible. It’s nonsense.

    Any comments? Or things to add to the list? Or a different way of scoring such a list?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 18, 2008 #2
    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    How so?
  4. Sep 18, 2008 #3


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    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    Well, one problem with your list is that it doesn't reflect the current state of scientific knowledge!

    If it was just that, then there would be no 'problems'. The thing that distinguishes quantum mechanics from classical mechanics is that probabilistic superpositions are not enough to describe what we see.

    I'm not sure where you got this idea. I don't know of any scientific theories that say we live in different 'physical realities' just because we are using different metersticks.

    Surely you don't mean perfectly? I'm pretty sure no scientific theories assert that.

    It sounds like you're referring to the theory of evolution -- but that says it was natural selection, not pure happenstance.
  5. Sep 19, 2008 #4
    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    My list may well present my own distorted reflection of the current consensus, and your comments are helpful. Thanks. I tried to focus on aspects of this consensus which have puzzled me. I think they've also puzzled more knowledgeable folk!
    And this is why nobody can claim to fully understand quantum mechanics, I guess. Nicely put.
    Well, SR and GR tell us that spacetime is the malleable and dynamic arena shaped by observer observation and gravity in which we live and perceive 'physical reality'. Until 100 years ago we were unaware of how very different perceptions of time and distance could be. But now that we splurge on apparatus like the LHC and theorise about places where the Schwarzschild geometry rules we are well aware that perceived reality is not invariant. And what is perceived with meter sticks, radar and clocks, is!
    You' re right. I was ignoring primeval quantum fluctuations in the time of quantum chaos that might have preceded the BB.
    But pure happenstance mutations of DNA is what underlies natural selection!

    I guess I was trying too hard to be neutral and oversimplified my list.

    I don't quite know how you want me to respond. Could you amplify, please?
  6. Sep 19, 2008 #5


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    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    That doesn't follow.... While my comment does bring up something that is difficult to understand from classical intuition (and thus giving problems to scientists 100 years ago, as well as today's laypeople, or even technical people who have only been trained in classical mechanics), it doesn't intimate that those trained in quantum mechanics are uncapable of developing an understanding and intuition for the quantum mechanical.
  7. Sep 19, 2008 #6


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    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible."

    Does anyone know in what original context Einstein fired this comment? I admit that I don't have a clue. but to play the game of random associsions...

    Spontaneously, my first association reading this goes to learning and evolution. Given a totally ignorant observer, how is it that it can learn? How does it "know" howto learn? How do you know that your bets will give a return?

    I think it doesn't. However, there will be a selection in favour of those who make the right bets. Thus part of the intelligence, implicit in the makeup of matter and life, is I think evolved.

    This may be farfetched, but I could imagine one possible meaning of the quote in the context of a kind of induction like to rephrase...

    The most incomprehensible thing about induction is that it works.

    In this interpretation of Einsteins quote (I know what he said, but not what he meant; I can only guess) I think it's plausbile, but then perhaps there is a posible way of understanding it and that's to cnosider the alterantive.

    In the context of evolution, I seems almost self-evident that something that "doesn't work", will not be preserved. So the fact that we seem, against the odds, to acquire and understanding of the world, might be "understood" as the only reasonable outcome of an evolutionary abstraction?

  8. Sep 19, 2008 #7


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    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    Hey Oldman, if I am pulling this discussion in an unwanted direction let me know, but maybe we can even associate this question as analogous to the meaning of that quote of of Einstein!

    The question that a subjectivist/solipsist inclined system (like me) would ask is then:

    If it is really true that there are not universal truths out there and more or less everything is fundamentally a matter of point of view, then the largest question of all is, how can this be, and still the word sticks together!!?

    Ie. the most incomprehensible thing is that we do comprehend, can also be modulated into that "given the mess", it is incomprehendable that this game we all life has any degree of coherence at all?

    Like above, my personal "philosophical answer" to this, is that the key is evolution. The *selection* of observers, is what makes the world stick together, because everything that is in some sense "possible", does not actually happen.

  9. Sep 19, 2008 #8


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    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    My thoughts still have momentum from the above post, interfering with my recent reading up on Popper.

    I think Popper, turned his failure to understand the utility of induction, to question that it works. Ie. his failure to "comprehend the comprehension itself" self-inhibits the very comprehension.

    Now I'll stop.

  10. Sep 19, 2008 #9
    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    Not for a moment would I deny that those trained in Quantum Mechanics (QM) develop an understanding and intuition for the subject. But 'understanding' is a tricky concept. Let me illustrate this by considering a phenomenon that involves circular motion -- which to many people can be somewhat unfamiliar.

    Imagine yourself facing north, holding a spinning bicycle wheel at arms length by its axle, which you grip on either side of the wheel. Imagine the the axle to be horizontal. If you were to turn suddenly to face east (or west), keeping the axle horizontal you would find, perhaps to your surprise, that the wheel would try to twist your outstretched arms and dip its axle towards the vertical. At first you might not 'understand' this behaviour. But later, if you encounter some strange behaviors of spinning tops or gyroscopes you could liken them to the now-familiar behaviour of the bicycle wheel, and claim that to some extent you understood tops and gyroscopes. In this case understanding means 'placing an experience in the context of familiar happenings'.

    Alternatively you might immediately realise that the wheel axle tries to dip because the northerly and southerly momenta of the top and bottom parts of the wheel have to be deflected in opposite directions, say toward the east and west. These changes of momenta are effected by the forces you exert to keep the axle horizontal, which constitute a twisting couple. In this case your understanding is one level down, as it were, and perhaps more satisfying. But it is still not complete, because it relies on concepts of momentum and force. Although these, are ultimately mysterious, they are still pretty familiar to most people. Again understanding means 'placing an experience in the context of the familiar happenings, or in this case concepts'.

    It seems to me that with QM the ultimate and mysterious level where one cannot rely on having a context of familiar experience is reached more quickly as you dig deeper. I'm thinking of things like the wave-particle duality, Schroedingers Cat and the decoherence or collapse of the wave function. Then training that develops "an understanding and intuition for the quantum mechanical" may not yet result in full understanding, in the sense I've mentioned.

    On a lighter note --- if you doubt that circular motion is a bit mysterious, try this: hold a tennis racket out by its handle, with its face horizontal. Perfect tossing it up so that it flips exactly one turn, carefully about as horizontal an axis perpendicular to its handle as you can, catching it by its handle. You may drop it a few times before getting this right. Then before a toss note which face (rough or smooth) is uppermost. Check after tossing it and you'll find that mysteriously it always manages to land with the other side in your hand. You may not understand why a 180 degree turn about its long axis creeps in, but tennis players are quite familiar with such strange behaviour! The reason is too mathematical to write down here, and I think can't be 'understood' in the sense I have used. Just like parts of QM!
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2008
  11. Sep 19, 2008 #10
    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    Please explain to us why you think the Einstein quote you've cited in your OP is nonsense?
  12. Sep 19, 2008 #11
    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    I think he was referring to the foundations of physics.
  13. Sep 19, 2008 #12


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    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    I'm not aware of that, or are you referring to "the foundation of physics" in the general sense rather than a book/article then I figured that much :)

  14. Sep 19, 2008 #13


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    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    I didn't read the whole thread, but it seems to me the problem is an over-reading of the quote. It is trivially true that we don't know everything there is to know and won't for a long time, if ever. That doesn't have anything to do with whether it is possible for us to know all the laws that govern science. But it is a philosophical requirement for scientists to believe it is possible to know a lot more (but not necessarily all) of what there is to know - otherwise, there would be no point in pursuing science.

    In short, though, I think the statement is simplistic and thus it can't be assumed he meant that it should be taken for granted that we will eventually know everything there is to know in science.

    Also - everyone knows/accepts/agrees there are things that science doesn't yet have explanations for. So there is no need to use specific examples when examining the philosophical statement. They aren't relevant.
  15. Sep 19, 2008 #14


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    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    I'm not sure how you conclude that. Going by the definition
    In this case understanding means 'placing an experience in the context of familiar happenings'.​
    it's sort of trivial to gain an understanding of anything -- if you study it long enough, it becomes something familiar.
  16. Sep 20, 2008 #15
    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    Yes, this clarifies your question. Thanks.

    It's nonsense because comprehending or understanding something is not the same as describing it or knowing about it. Very obvious if that something is your opposite sex! I guess Einstein just couldn't resist making such a superficially clever remark. He comprehended so much more than others.

    Science describes phenomena and generates knowledge about them. Sometimes (see the OP) this is insufficient for comprehension. For example, we know a lot about the expansion of the universe, which is easily described by a metric, but it sorely puzzles many who post here. It generates a plethora of attempted clarifications here and elsewhere. See the Cosmology forum.
  17. Sep 20, 2008 #16


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    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    Why do you think the "we who know a lot about the expansion of the universe" and the "many who are puzzled by it" are the same group?
  18. Sep 20, 2008 #17
    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    Or perhaps we are just reading it differently. I do agree with what you say about scientific knowledge and scientific laws, but this wasn't quite what I was taking issue with.
    Nevertheless I hope the examples I've given in the OP can't hurt ---- at least they point to cases where I think knowledge alone has proved insufficient for comprehension.
  19. Sep 20, 2008 #18
    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    It's the difference between knowing and understanding again. We do know a lot about expansion -- like the Hubble plot, how at the top end it deviates from linearity, what expansion extrapolated backwards points to, etc etc.

    But the fact that Scientfic American saw fit to pay Lineweaver to publish an article explaining what expansion is, and numerous threads and posts in the Cosmolgy forum are evidence that a lot of folk don't understand expansion. I think Marcus there has the best take on it, but I'm still not sure that I grasp its meaning properly. Perhaps because GR and curved space touch on matters beyond our regular experience? We're so mesoscopic!
  20. Sep 20, 2008 #19


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    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    I'm not convinced. It still looks like the difference between "person uneducated in a scientific topic" versus "person educated in a scientific object.


    Cosmologists know a lot about expansion, but...

    People learning from Scientific American do not know a lot about expansion.

    There was never a question (was there?) that laypeople do not have a good understanding of scientific topics. But that fact doesn't tell us whether or not the scientists who devote their time and energy to study and research are capable of developing a good understanding.
  21. Sep 21, 2008 #20
    Re: Was Einstein too optimistic?

    Of course you are correct. It seems to me that you may be thinking that I'm implying that researchers don't understand what they're doing --- perhaps you yourself are actively engaged in research, in which case you would find such a suggestion quite unacceptable.

    But in fact I'm suggesting no such thing. After spending my life in physics, publishing and luckily not perishing, I know very well how different is the understanding and knowledge of researchers from laymen. I understand the inticacies and mathematical structure of my own field very well indeed. But there are in physics many things we don't understand, especially when we are trying to describe domains we don't have direct access to --- the very small and the very large, beyond our experimental or observational grasp, say beyond the standard model or in cosmology.

    What I'm talking about is the possibility that we may be incapable of understanding, at a fundamental level, some of the puzzles in QM and phenomena like gravity, because of our mesoscopic experience and nature --- where and what we are. For instance, gravity is very adequately described by GR, less so by Newton's law. But the mechanism (for lack of a better word) by which mass distorts spacetime is a mystery and may remain so, just as in classical times nobody understood exactly why there was such a thing as Newton's law, or how mass attracted mass.

    So please don't think I'm trying to denigrate science. But I'd like to persuade folk that it may just have limits!
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