Sunday, January 30, 2011

Nonfiction 2: How to Teach Physics to Your Dog by Chad Orzel

"Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen." -- Albert Einstein

I'm a lifelong reader of popular science who nevertheless got mediocre grades in every formal science class I ever took. Bear that in mind.

It's fun to say that modern physics is "weird" and "strange" and "really complicated". But I suspect that's just our prejudices talking -- our experiences as human beings lead us to perceive the universe in ways that are really quite provincial.

E = mc^2 is hard to grasp because most of us have no experience converting energy into mass or vice versa, and we've got no intuitive concept of the speed of light.

If there is a fundamental objective basis of reality, it's going to look a lot more like quantum mechanics than anything Newton knew about. Yet, going by our instincts, we are blind to how reality actually operates. All we've ever experienced are enormous amalgamations of particles on the macro level where the truly weird properties of particles get canceled out. There's a bit of a tautology in that sentence, because the reason we humans think those properties are weird is because they get canceled out on the macro level.

I think if we get kids used to how quantum mechanics works at a very young age, they'll grow up thinking it's normal and natural. To make it seem more natural to human brains, this will of course involve new grammar -- we need at least one new verb tense, probably more. We ought to come up with new vocabulary too. "Wavefunction" is an awkward word coined by adults who could only conceive of this aspect of reality through equally awkward thought experiments. We need some new, monosyllabic nouns and verbs.

(I'm kidding, inasmuch as I don't actually think there's a lot to be gained by raising kids without our macroscopic blinders. At least, I think I'm kidding. This parenthetical aside might sound like too-cautious backpedaling in a few decades.)

I liked Orzel's book a lot, particularly his implication that dogs find quantum mechanics easier to grasp because they don't have humans' common-sense blinders. Orzel really does make these concepts relatively easy for non-specialists to understand, and he does it without dumbing down. That's right -- the book's got a talking dog, and quantum mechanics isn't dumbed down. Really.

I'd been softened up by previous pop-sci books I'd read on the subject -- I like Leon Lederman's The God Particle, which isn't primarily about quantum mechanics, but as it's about subatomic particles, it can hardly avoid dealing with it. There's also science fiction. Greg Egan's awesome novel Quarantine can be read as a satire on the Copenhagen interpretation, imagining a universe where it's actually how reality works, and technology is developed that exploits it on a macro level.

(The Copenhagen interpretation is the idea that -- and I'm assuming everyone reading this has heard of Schrodinger's Cat -- the cat is simultaneously alive and dead until a conscious observer actually looks, in which case one of the two blinks out of existence and the other becomes fully real. Collapse of the wavefunction, they call it. As I understand it, most scientists do not believe this is how reality actually operates. Instead, they believe things that are arguably stranger.)

There are chapters I want to re-read again soon, so that I can get a better grasp on them. Ideally, I'll have a good enough grasp of what's going on so that I can read articles like this one without feeling stupid.

No comments: