The Languages of Physics

A recent subject (question?) posted on a theoretical Physics forum asks, “What happens when one of a pair of entangled particles crosses an event-horizon?” This presumably simple question assumes agreement on a) what is an entangled particle?, b. what is an event-horizon?, etc., c)do any two physicists agree on those meanings?,  etc.  After first wondering what possible purpose the answer to such a question serves in the happenings of the real world, one realizes that it serves a real purpose in pointing out the problems the obscure languages of modern physics pose for the ordinary reader, you and me.

In talking about the concepts and issues we are concerned with here in the real world, Zone of Middle Dimensions, it is important that we make sure that we are speaking the same language. Language is, of course, a latecomer in the evolution of human thought. Up until about 100,000 years ago with the advent of homo sapiens sapiens the fossil evidence indicates that we did not even have the anatomical structures necessary for the rapid vocal interaction needed for the development of a complex spoken language. Certainly we had some sort of primitive symbolic communication, necessary for a developed social structure, for cooperation in the hunt, for interactive behavior in the cave or tribe, as early as homo erectus some 1.8 million years ago, but not the sophisticated and subtle systems necessary for the communication of concepts and ideas. Written language, a true form of symbolic communication, has only been with us for a very short time, since about 3400 B.C. The marks we see on this page, the way in which the ideas and concepts we are now passing between us, have been available only a very short time.

Now, of course, language governs all communications between individuals and groups. It is transmitter of knowledge between generations. But for language to do its job, even within just one of the many tribal, ethnic, national languages we use, there must be agreement on both its syntax and its meanings. A word used in one science or discipline develops meanings from its context. When used in another, it brings those earlier associations along with it. If we are not very careful, we may use a word to mean something that seems very clear to us but which carries associations that either muddy its meaning in another context or interfere with its carrying concepts or models we wish it to invoke.

In physics, astronomy, and cosmology, there are many such examples, the use of the word “particle” for one. I carried in my head for many years my 11th grade chemistry teacher’s assertion that an electron had no mass. It bothered me that such an important “particle”, one so important in our daily lives could be so insubstantial. We now are told that it presumably has a mass though that mass is very small. But “particle”, meaning “small part” in the language of classical physics, has become for physicists something which occupies a point in space, so small that it can only be detected by the track that it leaves behind, and perhaps by the mathematics that describes its behavior.

Physicists have identified many particles now, with unique and sometimes fanciful names, defined by mass, angle after a collision, spin, and the curvature of their tracks. There are others postulated to exist, not yet identified, but necessary to explain the existence or behavior of “known” ones. We publish papers, books, hold conferences to discuss their most obscure characteristics.

But pick up any book on particle physics, even in its more obscure versions such as “superstring theory” and you will find copious use of the term “discovery”. It is as if there has been the fortuitous opening of an obscure archaic volume, and there, in words of fire, perhaps, is the key to “Relativity”.

We might more appropriately, see these discoveries as “inventions”, for that is what they are. Einstein did not “discover” relativity, he created it as a model, a metaphor, of how the universe and its constituent parts might work. He created it in a true metaphorical language, mathematics, even though he may have seen it in his head as a conceptual model.

The value of such inventions is measured in terms of their level of completeness, and their testable and confirmable predictive power. They live and die based on these tests. But to call them “discoveries” imputes to them the sense that they must be eternal verities, found as if they were jewels pulled from the depths of the earth and destined to live and prevail forever. No true scientist believes that of these “discoveries” so let’s call them what they are. Still we can pick up even a skeptical book, as Peter Woit’s “Not Even Wrong”, with its scathing and convincing dismissal of superstring theory, and find every new equation in cosmological history described as a discovery.

We are also guilty, in many instanced, of what we might call the misuse of metaphor. A couple of examples come to mind. Edwin Hubble the astronomer, looking deeply into the far reaches of the universe in the 1920’s, deduced that distant galaxies were moving away from us. In his now famous red-shift observations, he also noted that the farthest distant ones were moving faster than those nearby. The proof of these observations convinced Einstein that his belief in a “flat” non-expanding geometry was false and led to the abandonment of the controversial cosmological constant in his equations. This observed expansion was accompanied by the observation that this expansion would appear the same from any point in the universe. But this expansion was not considered due to the outward motion of the galaxies themselves away from each other, but, out of deference to the Einsteinian entity of “spacetime”, was attributed to the expansion of space itself. The too simple analogy that was commonly used was that of a balloon on which the galaxies were represented as ink dots, which, as the balloon was blown up, appeared to be moving apart, but remained in place in relation to one another. (We now know from subsequent observations that this is not necessarily true, some irregular galactic motions have been determined.)

The analogy fails in two ways: first, it suggests space as a kind of curved ‘flatland’, when in fact, space as conceived then and now, must be what lies inside the balloon; second, it ignores the simple logical expression that if a equals b, and b equals c, then a must equal c. Movement apart is equal to movement apart.

Space, in all literature using relativistic terms, is always given the attributes of a substance. The literature gives it a structure, but only a mathematical structure. When reduced to diagrams or illustrations as having a flat, positively curved, or negatively curved nature, it is represented as a plane, a sphere, or a saddle, with the planets, stars, galaxies arrayed on its two-dimensional surface. It is no wonder that ordinary minds have trouble understanding its essence.

A similar problem occurs in explanations or representations of what is called the “big bang”, the supposed moment when everything began–from nothing. In attempts to make it either clearer or perhaps more dramatic we are asked to imagine that the universe has reached its limit and has begun to contract. Imagine, you are instructed, all of those planets, stars, galaxies headed back to their starting point, rushing ever faster, colliding, being crushed, subsumed, giving off enormous volumes of energy, ultimately grinding together in the true mother of all explosions, and then returning to nothing. It is reminiscent of the comedy routine of a few years ago of the two Las Vegas casinos competing furiously with each other with ever more extravagant entertainments until one advertises, “This Week; The Hydrogen Bomb; One performance only!”

What is left out of this metaphor is that, if there were such a beginning explosion, none of those massive constructs, those planets, stars, galaxies, would have already existed.

Let us now, here declare the First Law of Metaphor: “Metaphors of reality must obey the laws of reality!” (but within limits: nothing in this law shall be construed as to constrain poets).

Perhaps the most confounding element of our use of language is our confusion of levels of meaning. People, particularly politicians, sometimes married couples, find themselves at odds because they seem to be “talking past each other”. Alfred Korzybski, in Science and Sanity, lays out a system of “orders of abstraction” close adherence to which helps to avoid this difficulty. In Korzybski’s system a point-event constitutes a first-order abstraction, that is, the observation, the sensory perception. A statement about that point-event, its initial description, even an exclamation of pain if the point-event was touching a hot stove, constitutes a second-order abstraction; a statement about that exclamation, a third-order abstraction, and so on. It is easy to see how a dialogue where one party is discussing the event while the other is discussing the reaction(s) to the event can lead to a significant loss in the communication. Bertrand Russell and A. N. Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, uses the term “logical type” in laying out a similar theory. Strict adherence to these principals is often lost both in scientific literature and in popular accounts of scientific breakthroughs and leads to more controversy and confusion than we normally expect from scientists.

(This post, with minor modifications, was first published in 2011, as Appendix B of my book, “the picnic at the edge of the universe.“)


About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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