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Thursday, September 30, 2010
Science ...

Who is your favorite physicist? Most people don’t have one. Newton, Einstein, Maxwell, Hubble — great thinkers, but what’s the difference between them as human beings? They were all pretty nerdy, most likely.

Well, I happen to like modern science a whole lot, but up to now I never really thought much about who my favorite physicist would be. When you think about physics, you think about big abstract ideas, not about personalities and human struggles. But personalities and human struggles lie behind all that has been accomplished in our quest to understand the basic laws of the world that we inhabit and the universe that surrounds it. So here are some of my rough impressions regarding some noted physicists. I’m going to focus on the modern guys, as having seen them speaking on TV and read their words in magazines and knowing the times they live in, I have a better grounding in judging them as fellow travelers; versus say Marie Curie or Max Planck. This is not exactly going to be well researched, but for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:

I have a lot of regard for Roger Penrose. Right now, he would have to be my favorite physicist (although I can’t say that there isn’t a dark side to Penrose and his ideas that I’m not aware of). I believe that Penrose in under-rated, in light of all the acclaim that currently goes to Steven Hawking and the late Richard Feynman. I like the fact that Penrose wrote a book to help intelligent non-physicists understand physics from “under the hood”. This book is called The Road to Reality, which I have (but am a bit intimidated about actually reading; my mind might not be strong enough anymore to grasp the deep mathematical and geometric concepts that underlie modern physics).

I thus give Penrose credit for trying to reach out and share the joy of deep thinking that he and his colleagues dwell amidst. I see Penrose mentioned a lot in Scientific American and other places as a purveyor of contrarian approaches that don’t completely follow the flow of modern research (which generally flows in the direction of string theory). He has put forth some daring if not accepted ideas on consciousness and quantum physics, as well as other new ways of thinking about time, space, gravity, the whole shebang . . . . He’s probably wrong a lot, but who knows if the string theory people are going to be right.

As to self-proclaimed genius Richard Feynman, I’m not sure why he’s often touted as the greatest physician of the second half of the 20th Century. I don’t read much about him in popular articles on modern physics, other than in regard to Feynman path diagrams. His books (from what I know; haven’t read them) seem like personal grandizements, e.g. Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman. He definitely was an interesting character, who played bongos in strip club for recreation. But Feynman was also known as a good explainer in his student lectures and classes. Perhaps I don’t read about him as much as other modern physicists because Feynman died in 1988 from cancer, mostly pre-dating the string theory movement. I don’t doubt that he accomplished a lot given where physics was when he started.

However, I think that Sheldon Glashow, another physicist from Feynman’s time (still kicking, though), did more to change the world, given how he founded the basic concepts behind the Standard Particle Model. That Model, formulated in the 1970s and 80s, was a huge step forward in understanding the relationship of energy fields, matter particles, and space-time. It still leaves gravity as “the final frontier”, but it was an incredible jump in relating the other basic forces (electromagnetism, the strong nuclear binding force, and the weak force of radioactive decay) to each other. I like Glashow; from what I’ve read, he is a colorful guy who smokes stogies and speaks plainly to the press. He tries to seem like a “regular guy”. Maybe that’s all a front, but from my perspective, it’s still good to want such a front.

Of course there is Steven Hawking – he’s brilliant for sure, known for his great work on black holes and time and the structure and dynamics of the universe. And he’s also known for trying to help the public understand something of what he and his peers are seeing on the frontiers of cosmology. But Hawking is also angry about something. He always seem to be picking a fight with God. Well yea, he did get the wrong end of the stick given the disformed body that he has to live with, in that wheelchair with his voice synthesizer. I guess you can’t blame him for trying to have the last laugh on God.

And then there’s Ed Wittin, brilliant for his work on sewing together the various strings of string theory into a comprehensive “M-theory”. But to me, Wittin seems too much an apologist for the string movement, too tied with it to think outside the box. Ironically, string theory started out as being extremely outside the box, but over the past 20 years or so a lot of box has formed around it.

One guy who seems to be trying to work outside of that new box is Lee Smolin. I like him; his articles and his alternatives to string theory (“loop quantum gravity”) also seem cogent (from what little I would know). Even if he turns out to be totally wrong (I doubt if any of these guys are “totally wrong”; most likely they each hold and contribute some part of the bigger picture), Smolin gets credit from me for forwarding an alternative to string theory, something that can keep physics moving if in fact future experimental research shows string theory to be untenable.

I also give honorable mention to Andre Linde and Alan Guth for their work on cosmic inflation. The Big Bang has been around now for over 30 years, but it wasn’t so long ago that Guth, and then Linde, made the Big Bang picture fit with the universe as we actually find it through their “big inflation” theories. That’s a pretty brave idea, actually; the notion that space just grows out of nothing somehow, that it expands the realm of the universe in effect like trillions or gazillions of tiny bubbles that expand throughout the vastness of space. Well, that how space became so vast; at the instant of the Big Bang, the Universe was extremely tiny. Guth and Linde saw that something had to put in the space that we take for granted, and came up with plausible concepts and equations, ideas that actually fit in with the data (e.g. the microwave background radiation emanating from the sky, which was discovered in the 1960s and is being measured to more and more precision with satellites).

So those are some of my favorite modern thinkers, along with a few over-rated characters (in my humble but uninformed opinion). Sorry that they are all guys. Too bad that there aren’t more women at the forefront of cosmology and particle physics. The universe is turning out to be such a complex and counter-intuitive thing, I’m sure that feminine insight would help to grasp it better. Perhaps in another 50 years. There will still plenty be left to learn and figure out. Despite Hawking, we do not yet “know the mind of God”.

Not even close.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:54 pm      

  1. Jim, I’m sorry I really cannot say that I have a favorite physicist. I have read one of Stephen Hawking’s books quite a while ago. But when he started talking about God, he lost me completely. I have disagreements with theologians about God. Hawking is no theologian; so when it comes to his propounding on God, I think he’s out of his league.

    I’ve heard of Richard Feynman but know nothing of what he has to say about physics. The rest of those you mention I don’t even know.

    Much of the problem with having a favorite physicist is two-fold as I see it–at least as far as I’m concerned. First: To know anything about physics, one must be fluent in the language of mathematics. I am sorely lacking in any such knowledge. My lack in that regard is something that has followed me all my life from when at 10 years old I came home with a C in arithmetic. My father was shagrined and irate that his daughter got a C in arithmetic. He spent lots of time telling me I could improve my arithmetic skills if I would add up the numbers on license plates as we drove through the city. But I would rather look at the people and wonder about them–were they happy? sad? What was each person’s life like? Those were my questions. Refusing to add numbers on license plates didn’t help at all my arithmetic. Sad to say I was a stubborn child.

    However, I do think there are other areas in which one can do “deep thinking.” I relished Carl Jung’s works on the subconscious, the collective unconscious, the animus and the anima, etc. One can do a lot of “deep thinking” there too. It depends on one’s inclination.

    The second problem, as I see it, with a “favorite” anything is just that–picking a “favorite”. It’s difficult to pick a “favorite” any person as different people can be a “favorite” for so many different qualities. How does one pick a “favorite”? So, in some respects I would see that each of the above physicists might be a “favorite” for one or two particular ideas or contributions he has made to the field. Or even for some other entirely different reason.

    I do think your grasp of the various physicists and their ideas is terrific for being the lay person you say you are–or at least I get the impression that is what you consider yourself. Maybe I am wrong; if so, I apologize. But I don’t agree that you are so much of a lay person in the field because you must be very fluent in the language of math.

    Yet, isn’t it just that difference in people that makes for good discussion, good exchange of ideas, good friendships, good relationships? I’m generalizing here and have strayed from the topic of physicists, I realize.

    I say you have done a very good job of explaining your preferences in this field of study, which obviously you are quite learned and fluent in–at least compared to an ordinary lay person vis-a-vis physics. Glad to get to know this about you. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 3, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

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