1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

I When natural language fails to explain

  1. Oct 7, 2016 #1
    [Mentor's note: This thread started as a fork of https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/does-the-electron-really-spin-720-degrees.887917.]

    If you cannot translate the math to language, you are doing something very, very wrong. You are fundamentally at odds with the reality that physics is attempting to explain:

    "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." - Einstein

    "Today's scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality." - Tesla

    "There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.” - Orwell
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 7, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 7, 2016 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    If you think physics is trying to explain reality you are making a mistake. Physics is a collection of methods to predict experimental results. Eveything beyond that is interpretation.

    Can you explain, please, in clear unambiguous English - what is electric charge ?
  4. Oct 7, 2016 #3


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2017 Award

    Einstein's quote doesn't make a point in favor of your argument. It's just the statement that pure mathematics is unrelated to reality. It's a structural but not a natural science, and as far as you refer to the results of pure mathematics you get certain statements (although as we have been taught by Einstein's friend Gödel there are in fact undecidable statements within any sufficiently comprehensive system of axioms). As far as physical theories are concerned they are always uncertain since it can well happen that an observational fact (including its reproducibility!) proves them wrong. My statement was that there's no possibility to precisely state a physical fact without mathematics. Already the very basic definition of fundamental observables like distances in space and the time between events needs a mathematical foundation. Physics is, and this is important, not only an observational but also a quantitative science!

    Tesla's accusation is, fortunately, not true either since physics always has been and still is an empirical science, and theoretical predictions have to refer to observables and have to be testable by experiments. Most money spent in pure research in physics is for experiments at ever higher accuracy!

    Orwell has made a nice bonmot, no more no less. If you consider QT absurd, it's because you are not used to the phenomena described by it, and that's natural, because our experience is based on the macroscopic matter surrounding us and out of which we are made ourselves. That phenomena on very tiny (and QT reaches indeed to the tiniest resolvable entities so far observable with our contemporary technology) and very large (indeed GR seems to work quite well out to the very far distances observed by astronomers, like the deep-field Hubble space telescope images) scales are different and may seem "absurd" is not very surprising. Science is about finding such things out by observations, experiments, and also mathematical descriptions (models/theories). There's no better and more accurate way to state and to describe nature's behavior than mathematics. If you don't like that, do something else, but you won't be happy with the natural sciences!
  5. Oct 7, 2016 #4
    I disagree with that aim and believe that is the reason so many interpretations have lost their way. Physics should be used to model the outside world of the observer; namely, the objective reality of a person's mind. The predictions are related to the sense impressions. Otherwise, how can there be any form of communication of shared experience? Or more bluntly, what would be the point?
  6. Oct 7, 2016 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Theory ("interpretations") is judged by utility. (By utility, I am not referring to "practical" results but rather the ability to model some aspect of our experience. Some models are objectively better than others, because they are better with predictions.)

    It would be unreasonable to assert there is a single objective reality at this point, whether it is shared by individuals or not. And we can communicate even in cases in which there is not shared experience.

    And I notice that we are drifting in subject matter...
  7. Oct 7, 2016 #6


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    To model or to predict? The former matters most when we're trying to explain phenomena for which our only models are mathematical to people who lack the background needed to follow the math - it's no accident that this discussion started in a thread asking for a non-mathematical and easily visualized explanation of quantum spin, which is notoriously resistant to such treatment.

    But aside from the difficulty of explaining to laypeople, where is the problem? As @Mentz114 points out we can't even use natural language to explain in a clear way what electric charge is (at least none of us have responded to his challenge); if that means that physics has lost its way, it's been off-track pretty much since its birth.... and I don't buy that. All that's going on is that QM is more strange and unfamiliar so people are quicker to realize that there's nothing there to visualize.
  8. Oct 7, 2016 #7


    Staff: Mentor

    Thread closed for moderation.

    Edit: the thread will remain closed
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 7, 2016
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook