Friday, April 4, 2008

Miscellaneous thoughts: Arthur C.Clarke; The Trouble with Physics;

Here is my annual (or possibly biannual) post to this blog. I have a bunch of things to post about, all of which I have posted at once, after which I will be silent again for months. Such is life.

To begin, I’m saddened by the death of Arthur C. Clarke, who was one of the writers I read as a kid. Just reading the names of the books in his obituary brings back childhood memories: Rendezvous with Rama, The Fountains of Paradise, Childhood’s End. What I find most wonderful about his works (or my memory of them) is the grand scale of his ideas, the jaw-dropping sense of wonder that came through. He thought big --- and that applies just as well to his technological innovations (like the space elevator) as to his fiction. I think one of the first trips I ever took to Mars was via The Sands of Mars. I still remember how Childhood’s End pulled the rug out from under me. I read and devoured Asimov, too, in those days, and have some nostalgic fondness for those stories, but they did not move me like Clarke’s works did. Clarke’s vision was more humane, his writing more fluent and more passionate. Somehow I must have unconsciously assumed he would live forever, there on the jewel-like island of Sri Lanka, writing away and being the grand old man of SF for all of us space-bug-bitten carbon-based bipeds. Which is perhaps why his death was such a shock to me, even though I knew he was ninety, and frail. The night I heard the news I went out and looked at the stars.

Science fiction, by the way, was a major reason I went into science. For that and more, thank you, Sir Arthur.

Here is a link to an article about Arthur C. Clarke, published in New Scientist in December, 2007.

I plan now to re-read his works and see if my older self likes them just as much as the child I was did.


In my copious spare time (hah!) I recently finished reading a book called The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin. It is a critique of the current crisis in theoretical physics, which according to the author (a physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Canada) is a result of everyone jumping on the string theory bandwagon. String theory, despite its mathematical beauty and its great success in unifying the fundamental forces of nature (if at the cost of extra dimensions), has not brought us one experimentally verifiable prediction in 30 years. It is apparently widely believed that there is no other game in town but string theory, and Smolin debunks that by presenting five other approaches by various groups that are at least equally promising, if not more so. Unfortunately because physics is no less immune to fashions and fads as any other endeavor, people working on alternate approaches are not given as much prestige (including jobs and funding and air time) as the string theorists, although ironically this was the very situation faced by string theorists when they first started out.

One of the interesting points that Smolin makes is that one reason why we haven’t had a theoretical physics revolution since the early twentieth century (when quantum physics and relativity took us by storm) is because we’ve stopped asking philosophical questions about the nature of reality. Quantum mechanics took us to some very strange places where the usual analogies and interpretations were useless, and there was much debate about the meaning of physical reality at the time, with Einstein, Bohr and others among the participants. At some point Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics won out (although I’m reading another book that details how Bohr was misunderstood and continue to be misunderstood even now --- more on that another time), and since that point physicists were encouraged to “shut up and calculate.” And calculate they did, and their efforts were rewarded when experiments verified the predictions of quantum electrodynamics to an absurd degree of precision, making quantum physics simultaneously the least understood and most successful theory of all time. Since then it has been quite unfashionable for physicists to ponder the nature of reality (at least in front of other physicists).

My own experience in college (both undergraduate and graduate) bears this out. Some of my friends and I wanted to know what Schrodinger’s wave function really meant, what it implied for the nature of nature. (Somehow Born’s probabilistic interpretation didn’t feel like the last word). I do not recall being taught about the different interpretations of quantum mechanics such as those of David Bohm --- I didn’t even know he’d come up with an alternate formulation until much later. We were quietly discouraged from going beyond the canonical interpretation. And to tell the truth, with assignments and tests and all, there wasn’t time to think deeply about it, so we had to content ourselves with speculative discussions over cups of chai or noodle soup. That was in Delhi University and later on I came across the same attitude in graduate school in the U.S.

So now I’m reading all kinds of interpretations and speculations on what quantum physics reveals about nature, and some of it is clearly nonsense, while the more rigorous stuff is fascinating but slow going.

But anyway one of the things I wanted to mention about Smolin’s book is that in one of the chapters he goes right out and says that that the reason why there aren’t more women or blacks in physics is “blatant prejudice.” Drawing upon his inside experience with hiring committees and the like, he reports that from what he sees, candidates are generally turned down if they are 1) female, 2) non-white and/or 3) someone inventing his or her own research program rather than following the mainstream. He notes that “whereas there have always been talented women musicians, the number of women hired by orchestras rose significantly when candidates began auditioning behind a screen.” He goes on to make analogies between the prejudice that women face in various endeavors and the resistance that new ideas face from the establishment.

The subject of why there aren’t enough women in physics is a topic for another day but it is interesting to note how clueless men seem to be about this subject (and some women too). Back in 2006 there was a report in Physics Today by researcher Evelyn Gates in which she wrote about factors affecting women going into physics. The letters from male physicists responding to her article (which does not seem to be available online) are revealing in their naivete and their assumptions about science and gender. Also well worth reading is Gates’ response at the end of the section:

Here is yet another dispatch from the land of Men Who Don’t Get It:

I want to scream.

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1 comment:

Niall said...

Hi -- I edit Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, and for the next issue I'm pulling together short personal tributes to Arthur C Clarke. Would you have any objections to me using yours, from this post? (Or, possibly, would you be interested in writing a slightly longer one?) If so, please let me know -- my email address is vector dot editors at gmail.