The popularisation of important concepts in 20th century physics has lead to a lot of widespread trivialisation, and the spouting of incredible amounts of innacurate, misleading, or plain totally-out-of-the-ballpark explanations and analogies. Schrodinger's famous feline thought-experiment, Einstein's Relativity, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and E=mc2 are frequently yanked into unrelated discussions to prove that "everything's relative", "nothing is ever certain", "the world is full of cosmic energies", and/or "physics is flawed".

One (non-scientist!) author who actually managed to draw a good metaphor with modern physics is Salman Rushdie, in his recent novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet:

"Scientists get angry when laymen misunderstand, for example, the uncertainty principle. In an age of great uncertainties it is easy to mistake science for banality, to believe that Heisenberg is merely saying, gee, guys, we just can't be sure of anything, it's all so darn uncertain, but isn't that, like, beautiful? Whereas he's actually telling us the exact opposite: that if you know what you're doing you can pin down the exact quantum of uncertainty in in any experiment, any process. To knowledge and mystery we can now ascribe percentage points. A principle of uncertainty is also a measure of certainty. It's not a lament about shifting sands but a gauge of the solidity of the ground."

haggai has a point here. Lots of people are overly enthusiastic about modern physics, while at the same time interpreting the important, subtle points of theory incorrectly. People see news headlines (written by journalists with little understanding of science) that advertise mysterious new technologies, but tell little about the science behind it. People then go to the library and see books with subtitles like: "physics for the layman," and "physics without formulas." If they see enough of these books they are tricked into thinking that modern physics can be understood by laymen. It is a mistake, of course, to assume that a book like "The Tao of Physics," gives you a degree in physics.

Will people every stop being foolish and curious about the frontiers of science? No. However, I don't think that the "syndrome" that haggai describes is necessarily a bad thing. I must admit, most of what I know about modern physics doesn't come from formal learning in a classroom. However, I think it is good and natural that people like me are talking about physics, even if we don't know it all. Eventually this debate will lead to resolution and a common understanding of what are now new theories.

I am sure that when Newton first proposed gravity, the general public did not understand it in a month. His theories helped to create revolutionary ideas that took the public a while to digest (Physical laws can be governed by math? Forces can act at a distance?) Some concepts took the public decades to accept. Eventually, though, these ideas did get fully digested. A random person on the street may not be able to spout Newton's Law of Gravity. However, they understand and accept the general idea that the movement of the planets and the falling of apples is due to an attractive force between massive objects.

Are people smarter today than they were in Newton's time? No, but now if you rattle off a fact that is inconsistent with Newton's Laws, someone will probably correct you. The only reason this is true is because the theories were bobbled around long enough that the public finally understood them. Now the basic ideas behind Newton's laws are widely understood and can be taught in elementary schools, even though the theory behind them requires calculus.

The point I am trying to make is that it is foolish to imply that people are morons for not understanding modern physics. People will never understand modern theories since the definition of "modern" is always changeing as new theories are presented. When theories are presented it takes a while even for the people in the field to understand it. Then, this knowledge spreads to include "people in science." It keeps spreading until the educated public understands it. The public may think incorrectly at first, but if people are allowed to debate these ideas, in time they will become common knowledge.

A moment, if you please... being the "layman" in question here, one is faced with the sudden proposal that uneducated curiosity about the formal frontiers of science leads to inaccuracy, a compounding of ignorance, and a cultish sort of new age culture based on pseudo-science. With this in mind, I'd like to propose a consideration - that Heisenberg's principle can therefore be extended to actual human curiosity, in respect to the fact that the more we know about science, the less those who are unacquainted with science can know. The knowledge as a whole is disparate, and the reality of the situation is that people cannot know all things at all points in time.

The result is a class of pseudo-intellectuals and pseudo-academics who believe that the unwashed masses of civilian Einstein and Hawking worshipers should go jump into a black hole. Regardless of how intelligent you are, or how intelligent you wish you were, I would like to therefore note that the best example I know of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that which is presented in a quote by Douglas Adams: "There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened."

Modern Physics Abuse Syndrome, therefore, is not (IMHO) the relentless attempts of morons to understand that which they cannot know, but rather is simply the disparate state of knowledge and ignorance as held by every person in the world. It is an example, not a crime, and if we take away the right of people to apply anti-logical extensions onto these theories, we remove the aspect of "chaotic not-knowing" from the whole deal. Without that, theories become the sole property of the pseudo-intellectuals, who know because they have been initiated, and have become something which despises human curiosity.

With respect to Dirac Tesseract, the examples he gives are exactly what Rushdie's quote in haggai's writeup is warning against. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle does not say "nothing is certain" (or even "by measuring one aspect we must change another"). What it says is that the product of uncertainties of particular pairs of measurements (the typical example is position and momentum (or velocity)) cannot go below a certain constant. It's saying something very precise: if you know the values of, say, position and momentum for an object, then there is an inherent inaccuracy (not due to your lack of understanding, intelligence, scientific training or measuring apparatus) in each measurement, and the product of these inaccuracies is at least some (small) number.

Physics is the science of measurement, and this is a fundamental law of measurement!

As such, it has nothing to do with the Douglas Adams quote. The Uncertainty Principle is not about how inexplicable and complicated the Universe is. On the contrary! It explains something about the Universe.

All of this is explained in popular physics books. It's not a matter of worship. Why would one want to worship Einstein or Dirac or Heisenberg or Hawking or SomeGreatPhysicist, anyway? One can admire them as scientists or as people (although the latter might be inadvisable in the case of Heisenberg). And I cannot see how distorting their ideas and putting words into their mouths that they never said can increase their glory. Surely it is simple respect to a person to know what they did say and what they didn't!

Modern Physics Abuse Syndrome doesn't stem from some disparate chaotic state of knowledge and ignorance in the world. No, it's entirely different. People have their own theories (about social science, as in the Social Text affair, or about Douglas Adams, or about how one should build a measuring device, or about the desired social order). In order to add credibility to their theory, they make some weak analogy to a physical principle (or, in the majority of cases, to the name of some physical principle). And then they pass off their own theories as part of a properly-developed and often well-proven theory. It's not even the appeal to authority (since the authority in this case never said what is claimed). The charitable assumption is that this is due to ignorance of the actual facts.

But ignorance of the laws of physics is no defence for misusing their titles. Who makes an analogy had better know both sides of it.

In response to Tmaq, below...

It seems to me absurd to claim that Newtonian physics and Special Relativity (and maybe also General Relativity) are intuitive, in a way in which Quantum Mechanics is not. Allow me to express my misgivings on the treatment of Newtonian physics as "intuitive", therefore, as this would appear to be the strongest of Tmaq's claims.

If Newtonian physics is so obvious, then what the hell is all the fuss around Newton? The man just formalized something for which we have excellent intuition, according to Tmaq.

Studying the history of science, we see that Galileo, and maybe people such as Stevens before him, had similarly radical ideas. Good for them! But what about those idiots before the 16th century in Europe? How did the (allegedly intuitive) concepts of force and momentum elude greater thinkers along over 10,000 years?

What about today? How intuitive is Newtonian physics? Well, let's pretend we don't know that sizable proportions of the general public are willing to buy almost any non-Newtonian and anti-Newtonian tripe dished up by the newspapers. I want to talk about the person who, to my mind at least, best personifies the educated modern person -- MYSELF.

I've caught myself asking (myself, luckily) "where does the energy to brake a 747 on the ground at full power come from?". (It doesn't. No work is performed in keeping a plane at rest. Come to think of it, when braking a plane after touchdown, the problem is more getting rid of the heat, than applying the force...)

How come I get tired holding a book up? I'm applying force, yet I feel myself using energy. Tmaq replies that I'm sensing the buildup of lactic acid. So much for my intuition: I feel myself getting tired, I really do get tired, BUT had I been a table, say, I'd have been able to apply force without getting tired.

"Intuitive" seems to be "what They taught me in high school". Personally, I think this argument from intuition falls flat. After all, in 200 years' time Quantum Mechanics (or its successor) will be taught in every high school physics class. Even today, the easy bits get taught -- and the bits keep getting easier... I imagine that Tmaq999 will writeup on E1001 that "the difference is that QM is intuitive, but mega-subloop-GUTs are not"...

I think the primary injustice that is done to Modern Physics and Physicists is done by people who refuse to make an effort to understand Physics. I feel that the very act of viewing Physics with awe, and converting Science to a kind of religion undermines its very philosophy.
Science is based on rationality, the very idea behind science is that of asking questions. Thus when people look at a statement made by a Physicist and repeat it as though it were some kind of divine truth, a great crime is committed. Religion is often based on what some person says. You are not supposed to question this person's authority. That is not what science is based on. The very point of science is that no one is infallible, and that you must try not to accept things on authority. I dont know whether I'm getting this across but I'm sure that every student of physics has at one time or the other heard someone saying with an aura of great reverence-"Do you know so and so great scientist says this...".

A second injustice that is done to Physicists ,as people, is to treat them as if they were different. There is this steorotype of a physicist as an Absent Minded Professor quite unromantic, always thinking of esoteric matters and quie unconcerned with the world. Lot of people even become like this because of this steoreotypical image that society has.

Science is an important part of our culture today, and I believe that by outcasting scientists we do them the greatest possible injustice. Thus it is important to remove this aura that modern physics has, and accept physicists as normal people-and probably the only way that this can be done is through greater scientific education.

Please also look at The Media and Science.

Modern Physics Abuse Syndrome is nothing new and can be found in literature throughout the ages. By far, the most flagrant abuse (prior to the contemporary age) is that of the Age of Reason. Alexander Pope had a few examples of this immortalized in his poetry:
Superior beings, when of late they saw
A mortal Man unfold all Nature's law,
Admir'd such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And showed a Newton as we show an Ape.

Could he, whose rules the rapid comet bind,
Describe or fix one movement of his mind?
Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend,
Explain his own beginning, or his end?
Alas what wonder! Man's superior part
Uncheck'd may rise, and climb from art to art;
But when his own great work is but begun,
What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.

Essay on Man: Epistle 2, lines 31 to 42
Pope again invoked Newton with a couplet which was intended to be Newton's epitaph.
Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:
God said, let Newton be! and all was light.
From the Principia in which Newton published the equations that explained the force of gravity and made all of the solar system work in a giant clockwork mechanism.

Some would even accuse the Founding Fathers of the United States of this same syndrome when they wrote:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

The beginning of the Declaration of Independence echos those beliefs of the time that science and philosophy can and will find all of the answers to the universe - that it is Nature's law that all men are created equal, just as much a law as that which states
F = G * M1 * M2 

The expectation of Newton and those like him ("A mortal Man unfold all Nature's law" and "Could he, whose rules the rapid comet bind") was to solve all the problems - if the universe is so orderly, certainly everything is explained and there are laws governing all planetary and human interaction.

All this is certainly true. Yet I cannot resist adding the rejoinder to Pope's couplet quoted above:-

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:
God said, let Newton be! and all was light.

It did not last. The devil, howling "Ho!
Let Einstein be !"
restored the status quo.

Sir John Squire, 1884 - 1958

The ultimate cause of Modern Physics Abuse Syndrome (TM) is that the subject matter cannot be understood in the way our minds have evolved to understand.

To clarify; "Modern Physics" usually refers to Quantum Mechanics, and the first question anyone considering the subject asks is; "What is this stuff?" or "What's really happening?"

The problem with these questions are that QM isn't anything, doesn't refer to 'things' (AKA, 'objects') at all, and the only thing that we can know about what's really happening are the various measurments made during experimentation. 'Thing' doesn't apply to micro-scale phsyics; It's about events, not stuff.

The only actual knowlege of QM physics resides in mathematical formulations of the general principles governing the outcome of experimental data. Anyone who fails to tackle the math will remain fundamentally ignorant of the subject.

Newton's "F=ma" can be understood intuitively when we find more massive objects harder to move, or feels their body pulled to one side while rounding a curve in an automobile.

Even Einstein's "E=mc^2" (and all that it implies) can be understood intuitively, with practice...or when contemplating how an atomic explosion can come from such a small package.

But no amount of practice will change the fact that QM phenomena cannot be intuited. Richard P. Feynman (a good start for the beginner) pointed this out decades ago.

The effort to make analogies without considering this fact will always result in nonsense.

This is not to say that analogies using the facts of Modern Physics cannot be developed, but they are typically quite different than the ones most often bandied about.

For example, it is demonstrably true that people are not things, as a result of being composed of trillions of cellular-scale events, each of which is composed of trillions of atomic-scale events; a collection of nothing but events cannot be anything other than an event, albeit an incredibly complex one.

Though our minds are designed to intuit each other as things, even a cursory consideration reveals this intuitive understanding false; We are in a constant state of change (indeed, all life is), we have a continual flow of material into and out of our bodies, which will total several hundred tons in a typical lifetime. The only 'thing' in the whole scenario is the symbol you use to think about such events; The idea in your head that means 'that person/event', and which you experience at any one time as a discrete entity. If you have understood this dissertation, even that has now changed; ideas are actually events, as well.

As elegantly expressed by R. Buckminster Fuller; "I seem to be a verb."


In response to ariels (with whom I tend to see eye-to-eye on many things), I must point out that 'intuitive' is not synonymous with 'obvious'. The best description of 'intuitive' I've learned is 'unconscious learning.'

Ariels' suggestion to the contrary, many a prehistoric (and later, historic) human had great intution about physics, as evidenced by their leavings: The only way for an ancient human to gain possession of a healthy animal was to raise or catch it.

Whether we consider the formation of the tools (which required knowledge of fracture patterns and material strengths); the use of spears, slings, arrows or even a thrown stone (knowledge of vectors, forces, and momentum, AKA ballistics); the breeding of animals (which required knowledge of inheritiability of traits...whoops, that's biology!); or the use of the animal parts for clothing or housing (knowledge of thermodynamics, statics and engineering), it's clear that although such people had not formalized their knowledge of general principles with mathematics, they certainly had knowledge which those later formulations elucidated.

If they didn't have the knowledge, they would not have acheived their goals of successful hunting, tool-making, or - in short - living.

Modern ballistics equipment can lob 1000-lb projectiles several miles, and with the help of mathematics, physical princples and computers, accurately hit their target by measuring the movement of the target, launch-pad, wind, and Earth, then calculating and applying the forces at the proper time and angle necessary for the projectile to go where the operator intends.

Prehistoric humans could consistently hit their targets from several hundred yards despite moving targets, launch-pads, and winds, with only their well-designed skeleto-musculature structure, crude but effective tools, and their practice-honed (and therefore intuitive) skills.

If that is not evidence that physical principles can be intuitited, I would ask; what would ariels consider convincing, or even strong, evidence?

You will get tired holding up a book only when using your arms, which require a continual expenditure of energy, because humans - comprised entirely of hydraulic technology - must constantly rearrange material to exert force using muscles. Lie down and lay the book across your shins, and you'll never get tired of holding it that way, despite exerting sufficent force the entire time.

Unfortunately, Quantum Mechanics will never be intuitive as long as we keep using brains evolved to deal with macroscopic-scale phenomenon, like moving targets, people, or animals. The only human knowledge of QM is that which resides in the mathematical treatment of experimental results. Only esoteric possibilities such as genetic engineering or uploading your mind into a computer, can alter this fundamental limitation.

Finally, it does take force to stop a moving airplane. Modern commercial jets use plates to reverse their engine's thrust - that's why they rev the engines on landing. Most airplanes have brakes - force being applied to the discs or drums - and all airplanes experience forces of friction, both laminar and drag from the air, as well as that of wheels or skid-plates across the ground (which is, of course, increased by the application of brakes).

As my favorite boss used to tell me: We do physics to test and improve our intution, not to confirm it.

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