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Culture, history and society

Culture, history and society

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06 Jun 2018 Robert P Crease
Taken from the June 2018 issue of Physics World

Robert P Crease wants to know your most discerning metaphor for doing physics

The science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem tells a wonderful story about a crazy tailor. This tailor knows nothing about people or animals or plants. He’s not even interested in them. All this tailor does is make random clothes, with different holes and tubes for heads or feet or legs or branches or other things that stick out. The clothes get stored in a giant, free warehouse, and if people come by with octopuses or centaurs or butterflies or trees they are almost certain to find something in that warehouse that fits.

That’s how maths works, Lem says. Mathematicians make structures without knowing or caring whether they fit anything. If these structures happen to be useful to someone, that’s wonderful. But it has nothing to do with why the structures are actually created.

That’s only one of several good metaphors I’ve heard for what it is like to do mathematics. Another is by the British mathematician Andrew Wiles, who is best known for solving Fermat’s last theorem. Doing mathematics, he told an interviewer on the Nova TV show, is like taking a journey through a dark and unexplored mansion. “You stumble around bumping into the furniture,” he said, gradually learning where each piece of furniture is. Finally, you determine where the light switch is, turn it on, “and suddenly it’s all illuminated.” Then you move to the next dark room, learn its furniture, and so on.

Metaphors and zingers

Maths metaphors are related to what might be called maths zingers. An example is the Hungarian mathematician Alfréd Rényi’s remark that “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” Another example is the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s comment that “Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.”

Both metaphors and zingers aim to get you to see a subject – maths, in this case – in a new way. But while the purpose of a metaphor is mainly educational and enlightening, the purpose of a zinger is mainly to make you laugh. Lem’s metaphor, for instance, is instructive because it highlights something that is often not obvious to outsiders: the fun and imagination of doing maths. Wiles’s metaphor, meanwhile, highlights the exploratory character of maths. Rényi’s and Russell’s remarks reach more for the chuckle than for the enlightenment.

But there’s a cost to both metaphors and zingers, for even as they highlight some aspects of the subject, they do so at the price of de-emphasizing and often distorting other aspects. Part of the collateral damage of Lem’s metaphor, for instance, is that it suggests that the work of those whose role it is to determine whether these dreamed-up structures fit things in the real world – physicists, say – is, comparatively speaking, unimaginative drudgework.

Physics metaphors

These maths metaphors by Lem and Wiles make me wonder if there are any equally vivid and enlightening metaphors to express what it is like to do physics.

I know of many terrific metaphors that illuminate specific concepts and discoveries in physics. Take for instance that concocted by physicist David Miller of University College London in the early 1990s, in response to a challenge from the then UK science minister William Waldegrave to come up with the best way to explain the Higgs field and boson to the public. Miller’s metaphor, for which he won a bottle of champagne from Waldegrave, compared the Higgs field to party-goers at an animated cocktail party. People walking through the room are like particles, with heavier ones being like more popular figures whose progress is impeded by partygoers who throng around them. This, by the way, is the metaphor that Peter Higgs himself told Physics World that he liked most.

But is there a metaphor for expressing the activity of physics itself – what it does and how it relates to the world? There are a few that I have come across, but none as vivid and effective as those that Lem and Wiles had for maths. Richard Feynman once famously compared physics to sex: “Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” It’s catchy, yes, but more zinger than metaphor. Dramatizing the sharp distinction between activity and results is interesting, but strangely enough reflects more the perspective of an academic rather than a physicist working outside academia. Feynman’s remark aims for the laugh.

Is there a metaphor for expressing the activity of physics itself – what it does and how it relates to the world?

Robert P Crease

Feynman crafted a deeper metaphor at the beginning of his Lectures on Physics. There he compared the world to a giant chess game played by the gods, with scientists being observers who are only allowed to watch and who collaborate in guessing the rules. This is enlightening in that it captures the fundamental character of the activity, as well as the role of observation and guesswork. Its downside is that it reflects the perspective of theorists rather than experimentalists. Experimentation, as I have often argued, involves the design, building and staging of performances, which the theorists then observe in order to guess the “rules”. But that material, performative side of physics is entirely left out of Feynman’s otherwise clever remark.

So here’s my challenge to Physics World readers: surely you have produced, or can devise, more sharply focused metaphors – and funnier zingers – for the activity of physics. Send them to me and I’ll report on them in a future column.

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