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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

seriously, completely understood

Sean presses forward with "Seriously, the Laws Underlying the Physics
of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood

I would put an emphasis on the word physics here. I think there's an
interesting question about the definition of physics. People who
think of themselves as physicists would of course like to define it so
that it is as powerful as possible. Reading Lubos a while back, (finally it got to be too much, and I found reading him, and the few attempts to engage with comments just too upsetting) one
could see this activity at play in the realm of string theory. String
theory was to be the best, most powerful theory out there. It didn't
matter that it wasn't well defined or maybe covered a variety of topics. Future work would go into its definition and elaboration. What was important was that it was known
ahead of time that it was all powerful.

Clearly the standard model and general relativity are powerful frameworks that are extremely fruitful for building models to describe and predict the world. And there do seem to be some facts about how we can take anything we find and break it apart and find the same underlying stuff. And if we put that stuff into an accelerator or in various
configurations, we can predict what it does.

But if the real point here is to emphasize the power and generality of the standard model and general relativity, then why talk about the "physics" of everyday life? This is the fundamentalism that Nancy Cartwright fights against. An effort to put disparate activities and types of argumentation together into one whole and say that it somehow covers everything.

Of course, I'm also sympathetic to this view of physics (or perhaps one can generalize to science, as well) as a unified extremely powerful discipline, and it was the faith that pulled me through graduate school. One thing for me that was discouraging (to continue a thread from Wimsatt's description of finding out how important "jerk" was) was when learning about quantum field theory and renormalization. QFT was presented as a generalization of the non-relativistic quantum mechanics we'd learned. But then it was shown that one actually got wrong answers and had to patch things up with this method called renormalization. If this was the fundamental theory, and it still required this much tinkering to get results for particle physics experiments, it seemed plausible that it might require different tinkering to apply it to correctly to limiting cases such as a helium atom. In some sense I hope I'm wrong about this, but it certainly was never presented in a coherent way. Foundations of QFT don't really seem to be too popular though, or seen as really open topics.

update... now the final (?) installment: one last stab.
I added a comment about how the reduction of helium to the standard model isn't usually done in a chemistry class, and it actually seems pretty hard. We're still trying to get protons out of QCD, with lattice QCD. I just wonder how much theories change as they pass from one discipline to another.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

All figured out

Here is Sean at Cosmic Variance patting ourselves on the back for having all the physics underlying our every day life figured out. I know what he means, and in some sense its a good point. I've tried to make this point to people before. That the laws of physics that we know, explain everything. Everything. Its a good point to not nitpick about the mass of the Higgs or the existence of sypersymmetry, or an accurate framework for quantum gravity.

At the same time, here is the reductionist mentality writ large. I'd like to see more debate and clarification on this point. Is there a way to make this point that is not so arrogant and overblown? Its certainly an accomplishment, and there's certainly a precise statement to be made, but how to make it without claiming too much, or minimizing the work and value and richness involved in "the playing out" of these laws?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


I've never been very good at organizing my life systematically. Somehow things seem to work, but I am also always left with a feeling that there are so many loose ends. Part of me wants to keep pushing to find a system, and part of me says- "look, what you are doing seems to work, so don't worry about it." I've heard the French described in this way, and I've seen it myself. There is a big mess of redundancy, it looks like a disaster, but somehow when you really need something, it tends to actually be there and work, somehow.

For example, should I make a To Do list? Where do I put it? Do I write it on a piece of paper and carry this everywhere? Or put it up on my wall? If I carry it, then I may always be worried about what I have to do, and never relax. If I leave it at home, I may not have it when I most need it. Do I write it in a file or using a program on my laptop? Then, when my laptop fails, all may be lost. Do I use some networked site like google or some other service to manage my data? Firstly I need to learn their system. Secondly I am then dependent on a large company that may not have my interests at heart. And these companies are getting too powerful, anyway. Do I really want to be a part of that system? Of course I use their services sometimes, but do I really want to make this the sole point of contact and system for my data?

So what about a more varied system? Where the same information is written on paper, in my email box, on my laptop calendar program, and perhaps sometimes in a google calendar or some other network type application. Having a system like this takes some work, and I think needs to grow organically in some sense. It needs to be robust. (Yes, still processing some of Wimsatt's concepts.) I think somehow I never developed such a system, and any attempt to produce one too quickly runs into some of the problems I've mentioned. When life is too busy, any flaws in my system are made worse. I try to write things down, and the proliferation of paper is worse than the organizational benefit from doing it.

Maybe it really is time to buy one of these organizer things.