PHYSICS SERMON #49
Just one of a ceaseless stream :)
W. Beaty 1999
> Question: How strong is your mathematical
Undergrad engineering at U of Rochester, partial diff-equs, linear
algebra, nothing higher. And this all mostly unused after twenty years.
> It seems you read a lot and write a lot, but you seem to
> give short shrift to the equations.
Oh, most definitely. In part, this is from a longstanding dose of Math
Anxiety which I've never entirely defeated. But this just provided the
seed. My avoidance of symbol-based reasoning is also a very intentional
philosophy: If I want to communicate with people who speak English, then
I must speak in English and finally THINK exclusively in English.
My understanding of "Latin" might sometimes help, but more often it will
interfere with English-think.
To really explain physics to the general public, I cannot rely on
anything resembling symbolic mathematical reasoning. It would cause me to
tell people "You cannot understand this, you don't have enough math
skills." The truth actually would be: "I cannot explain these
concepts in English, I am
hobbled by long usage of a crutch composed of mathematical concepts."
"A man of true science uses but few hard words,
and then only when none will answer his purpose; whereas the smatterer in
science thinks that by mouthing hard words he understands hard things."
After "descending" from the symbological heights of university-level
science training, and learning once again to talk physics with the
unwashed masses, I rapidly perceived the unmistakable power in such an
approach. Currently I commit the massive Physics-heresy of taking
mathematics down from its high pedestal, and instead elevating something
else, a thing which is very close to Pure Thought. Maybe describe it as
"self-constructing conceptual networks." It's like picture-puzzles which,
after being constructed in part, will magically attract the
rest of the pieces and assemble themselves without help. Then we call
it "AHA," "sudden insight," etc.
"In the matter of physics the first lessons should contain nothing but
what is experimental and interesting to see. A pretty experiment is in
itself often more valuable than twenty formulae extracted from our minds."
- Albert Einstein
[Hey, I finally encountered a term for the above. It's called
"Babylonian" thinking. From The
Character of Physical Law by Feynman,
'Babylonian' minds elevate concept-nets and metaphor above all else... as
opposed to "Greek"
or "Euclidian" thinking which puts the equations far above the concepts.]
There are plenty of math-based physics experts about. Why should I pursue
what everyone else pursues, when alternate paths might exist, paths which
lead to extremely useful viewpoints? "Everybody knows" that math is the
only route to physics. But study the misconceptions of textbook authors,
and you'll rapidly find that the greatest enemy of any scientist or
educator is the phrase "everybody knows."
> > I think we really should be discussing this on PHYS-L. Those people
> > are sharp. If I've made a glaring error, they will find it quick.
> Well, most of my friends are embarrassed when they make a mistake. They
> *really* hate screwing up in public, and they find it painful to back
> down in public.
I originally was just the same way: a huge flaming narcissist. In my
longrunning observations of
popular misconceptions (and also because of my fascination with the
history and sociology of science,) I've come to the conclusion that
avoidance of public embarrassment is a widespread mental disease among
scientists. I have to constantly fight to eliminate it from myself.
"disease" is based upon dishonesty and a need to shield our egos from
embarrassment-damage. Shielding ourselves from embarrassment has nothing
to do with Scientific Integrity (see Feynman's
SCIENCE for wisdom about Scientific Integrity.) Shielding
ourselves from embarassment leads to defensive twistedness in our
reasoning; a shameful state for anyone hoping to tackle natures
The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar to new ideas. It is
better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be
always right by having no ideas at all. - Edward de Bono
Rather than courting dishonesty in order to avoid embarrassment, I
conclude that we should
do the exact opposite: constantly pursue embarrassment in order to
avoid dishonesty. Even
stronger advice: we should strive to burn every trace of dishonesty and
habitual ass-covering from our thinking processes. Trial and error is
vastly accelerated if we think aloud, while simultaneously a group of
friendly colleagues points out our pitifully embarrassing blunders. This
thing can short out a large number of psychological
ploys which we commonly use both to flee from embarrassment, and to
preserve our misconceptions against attack. And the process of open
criticism can almost
instantly destroy our own cherished misconceptions, as long as we can
avoid the usual response of retreating into defensiveness and into a
reinforcement of our desire to Always Be Right. If we want to pursue
trial and error, we should, in a certain sense, intentionally purse
Or a better way to say it: intentionally exhibit our shameful flaws so
the whole world can see. Over time, like magic, our flaws then
become less and less. If instead we carefully hide them, then they
can fester and infect many other parts of our thinking.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that these things are EASY to do, or
that I'm always successful in doing them myself. I'm simply saying that
we would all benefit greatly if we could constantly strive in that
> Therefore (applying the golden rule) I try to avoid telling
> people "you screwed up" in public. If this discussion *had* been on the
> list, I would have tried to take it off-line, so as to reduce the chance
> of hurt feelings.
I request that you hurt my feelings, at least in regards to my falling
into physics errors and misconceptions. I want to immediately know why
I'm wrong, and don't spare any bit of the gruesome details. And
it's better done in public, so others can defeat their similar
People who wish to avoid the embarrassment of suddenly perceiving serious
personal mistakes while several hundred physics experts look on, need not
use listservers or newsgroups. Me, I recommend that everyone in the
Sciences make a habit of seeking out this sort of embarrassment. Don't
avoid it, instead develop a taste for it. Become embarrassment-gourmets.
Do the equivalent of pursuing the rare and exotic libation which
inexperienced children described as "rancid grape juice." The pursuit of
fermented fruit juice has rewards which the inexperienced children don't
I am convinced that this "pursuit of embarrassment" was a major component
of Richard Feynman's genius. He really, truly, didn't care what other
people thought. Most of us just don't get it. We give lip-service to
Scientific Integrity and/or Feynman's methods, but when it comes down to
actually employing them, we'd rather keep silent in order to maintain our
self-image as experts. We (amateur) scientists should instead be like
little kids who poke at things without a thought to looking like idiots:
we should be the very opposite of the self-declared experts who maintain
an exhalted and carefully defended image of our own perfection. Little
kids can see the mysteries. Little kids have a chance to defeat their
misconceptions by themselves, and to see very obvious things to which the
highly trained experts are blind. In addition, the highly trained experts
have a chance of acquiring massive misconceptions which they will fiercely
defend against all attack, because to relinquish their misconceptions
would damage their expertise in the eyes of their colleagues and in the
eyes of themselves.
Yes, this is yet another Physics Sermon. Please put your donations in
the tray as it passes among the pews! :)
"In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a
good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually
change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They
really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists
are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I
cannot recall the last time someting like that happened in politics or
religion." - Carl Sagan
Some non-math physics books