Monday, May 3, 2010

Physics as Magic?

There's a nice post over at Physics Buzz that I thought I might draw your attention to.  The central quote for me is:

"Speaking strictly about technology - which is often the knowledge attained by physicists put into practical use by engineers - physics has created some pretty amazing things. Cars, planes, iphones, medical treatments, lasers, 3-D movies, and the Large Hadron Collider. We are constantly WOWED by science. Unfortunately, the less someone understands how these things work, the more they begin to believe anything is possible. In other words, if you don't understand the parameters that allow for amazing things (like jets!) you also don't understand the parameters that would prevent other things (like energy generating heart replacements). If you don't understand anything about physics and technology, then it appears to be nothing short of magic, and magic has no bounds..."

I think this gets at some of the heart of what we're interested in doing here at the virtuosi.  By trying to strip away some of the mysticism around physics, we hope to bring people to a better understand of what we do.  Sure, we work fun problems, and discuss interesting topics (at least, so I hope).  More importantly though, while doing so we display both the tools of physics, and how physicists think.  The reason I got started on this blog is because I feel there is a huge gap in understanding between what physicists do and how we do it, and what the general public perceives us as doing.  I don't think this gap is good for anyone, and I think part of the reason for that is very well articulated in the above quote.

Of course, part of my hope for this blog is that if more people are comfortable with physics, when I tell people at a dinner party that I'm a physicist the response won't be either "Oh, I hated physics in high school" or "Oh, that's nice." End of conversation.


  1. My physics TA at my undergrad was also a magician... explain that!

  2. To be honest, a lot of physics is magic to people simply because they don't want to think about it. They have a fascination with the weird metaphysical stuff, but no interest in the actual mysteries that people are trying to solve.

    The other day I was sitting next to a girl on the bus who introduced herself as a medieval studies grad student. I told her I was a physics grad student, and she enthusiastically started talking about a television program she saw that had said people were mostly made up of some other kind of matter (I assumed she was talking about dark matter). I also got excited, seeing as this is one of those things I feel like I can explain to a layman (a galaxy not having enough observable mass to generate the centripetal force necessary to hold the outermost stars in orbit). But the moment I started talking about forces and gravity, it was like a switch went off in her head and she was instantly bored.

    I guess the point I am making is that to some extent, people like mysticism. They enjoy abstract physics concepts like quantum tunneling, parallel universes, the twin paradox, etc; and yet they don't have the patience do any actual thinking to understand the mathematical basis for these ideas. Perhaps they would indeed find the physical explanation interesting, they just don't feel like sparing the neurons for it.

    Now, I'm not saying there's no point in trying to get people to understand real physics. I'm just saying it is a two part process. Physicists need to be more open with the public and try to explain physics in an accessible way, but the public also needs to overcome this mental laziness that seems to permeate our society. I have no idea how to do the second part... maybe don't let them watch so much television when they are kids (or make cartoons smarter, like they were in the 90s).

    Also, I might point out, one solution to your problem, Jesse, is to only have dinner parties with high school students. :P