Seven Brief Lessons in Physics: a thing of beauty is a joy forever


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Mr. Rovelli is a great writer about science. I reviewed his cool book about Anaximander, The First Scientist, here.


The Einstein idea that no inertial frame of reference is special with respect to the speed of light is a nice idea. It follows on from Galileo’s and Newton’s innovations that followed from the guess that our bit of space is not special. However, the logical follow-on from that would be Fred Hoyle’s Steady State theory, where our bit of space and time is not special - all time and space is equal, and matter is continually created in the space left by the expanding universe, and there is no special moment of creation. That is pretty, whereas the current Big Bang theory leaves us with a universe with a point of creation but no symmetric Big Crunch, but an infinite amount of boring, lifeless space and time. Unsatisfying, asymmetric, and in that respect somehow almost ugly.

I expect it will be beautiful again when we know why.


I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like a good one.

On the other hand, while I started to watch the McKenna video, I had to stop part way in. Of course we may never fully understand the universe. It may itself be fractal, with no limit to its complexity. Matter is made of molecules made of atoms made of bosons made of quarks made of . . . . who knows? But just because we may never understand the totality of reality, we can still understand parts of it. To say that our role is not to understand but to appreciate* is to limit ourselves to staring wondrously at the universe with jaws hanging slack. Poo on that. I’d rather try to understand as much as I can. Within that understanding, however limited, comes incredible beauty. Now if that was McKenna’s point, then I apologize, but he sure had a weird way of approaching the matter.

*I assume he’s using “appreciate” to mean enjoy rather than understand, otherwise the sentence wouldn’t make sense.


I had similar thoughts. Some people do have the role of trying to understand – and some other people have the role of showing us pretty photo collages of glaucus atlanticus so that we might be persuaded to part with funding.


Carlo Rovelli is Italian… international… academic… University… France.

No! No! No! No! No!!!


(I wish I didn’t live in the world where I have to write a disclaimer that this is sarcasm… sigh…)


I’ve got one for ya. Quantum Philosophy by the French physicist Roland Omnès. NOT an easy read and definitely not some woohoo book of babble. Sort of on par with Gödel, Escher, Bach; readable, but you’ll have to do some work (very little math tho). Omnès will take you by the hand and explain classical physics. Then he will explain why it breaks down at the quantum level. Then he will explain how quantum physics works. THEN, and here is the really neat trick, he explains just how you get reality as you know it back from that. Along the way, he manages to dismiss the Schrödinger Cat ‘paradox’ in, like, one paragraph. All in all, my favorite physics book that no one seems to know about.


I’m not seeing the “logical-ness” of this. Newton’s “logical” outcome was the (eternal) clockwork universe; as soon as we had better math and materials for optics, simple & accurate observations of the orbits of our system’s planets was enough to know that Newton was incomplete (or ‘wrong,’ if you prefer).

Einstein took advantage of more advances in math and materials to demonstrate Newton’s shortcomings. The available math was so good, in fact, that he was able to ditch his personal attraction to a steady-state (or ‘static’) universal aesthetic after just a short while. Hoyle, as great as he was*, couldn’t get past the aesthetic that demanded singular eternal-ness as a characteristic of the visible universe.

Don’t forget that it was Hoyle who coined the term “Big Bang,” and he used it as a knock against his adversaries – it was meant to convey ugliness. Not very logical, certainly not beautiful – he was stuck in an older aesthetic.

A thing of beauty is a joy for( as long as your aesthetic can keep pace with your knowledge of reality.) At that point we need someone like Eddington (see below) to say: “We do not argue with the critics who say a theory is not beautiful enough for our appreciation; we tell them to go and find a better aesthetic.”

 * One of the great issues restraining modern astronomy/astrophysics was the simple question: “What are stars made of, and how do they produce energy?” Einstein didn’t know…tho he had a guess, shared among many (fusion). But nobody knew – no theory could account for the seemingly inadequate temperatures/pressures of stars.

Eddington threw down the exasperated challenge: “We do not argue with the critic who urges that the stars are not hot enough for this process; we tell him to go and find a hotter place.” (1926) Hoyle pulled a brilliant bit of Kobayashi Maru-like thinking and used quantum mechanics to change the test – you don’t need as much temperature if tunneling is on your side. He loosed nucleosynthesis on our universe, and it worked. Finally, at the insanely late date of 1954, we had the basic bit that enabled the astro community to accurately theorize on the life and death of stars.


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