Wednesday, September 13, 2006


I seem to keep coming back to trying to understand what Nancy Cartwright is saying about science.
Here's a nice essay which gets at some of what I've been struggling with. On the one hand, Chakravartty points out the exaggeration of the claims of Cartwright's "headlines" (she also wrote a book called "How the Laws of Physics Lie"), but on the other says that she has a compelling analysis that should be taken seriously.

The particular point I'd really like to understand is what she says about quantum mechanics. I know some stuff about the formal structure of quantum mechanics, and it is sort of relevant to my research, but I'm interested in how it can be so useful at the same time as so poorly understood. How can it be simultaneously true that it solves many techical problems and that no satisfactory interpretation of it exists? She addresses this question here, but I'd like to understand more of the details. Specifically, how can we use quantum mechanics to build lasers and computer chips (and eventually quantum computers!!??) and not "understand" it?? This question gets into the specialization of science. One might think that all laser technicians are experts at quantum mechanics, or (as I mistakenly thought) all accelerator physicists know profound things about relativity. In a sense these are true, but at that technical of a level, the results are not easilly recognized and put into a form which would be awe-inspiring for a lecture in a "physics for poets" type class, or even a more technical first year introductory physics class. This is where I start to get excited about teaching...

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