Thursday, April 24, 2008

Physics and Numbers

We began this introduction by talking about how physics began as philosophy, a sort of thinking that tries to understand things more deeply, and doesn't have a results-oriented focus. But soon the first natural philosophers crossed a divide which continues to separate physics and all the sciences from philosophy. This divide has three hallmarks: experimental observation of nature's actual behavior, complete control over experiments including the ability to repeat them at will, and always using numbers to describe nature. We started by talking about experimental observation, and more recently discussed the focus on experimental control, how it results in a corresponding narrowing of "scientific truth" to those things that can be controlled and repeated at will, and how it unfortunately can be part of a vicious cycle which focuses on power and abuses both man and nature. Now we will turn to the third hallmark of natural philosophy: its focus on numbers.

Numbers and the things we can do with them will be the daily bread of the rest of this blog. (That's why I discussed this hallmark last.) But before we get to know numbers I want to point out that there is a great mystery here: why are numbers useful for describing nature? Certainly this doesn't seem like a mystery today, when the success of numbers is a fact of life. The movie reproductions we watch via DVD or high definition television are composed of billions of numbers; indeed any image can be represented by numbers, as are the voice signals that we listen to on our cell phones and the songs we listen to on CDs. Mapquest and GPS have quantified our moving around: 5.3 miles north, then turn right and 1.4 miles east. And time also: we watches to tell the exact date and time. Clearly numbers have been very very successful, but their success alone does not explain why you're successful. If we think that the utility of numbers is obvious, it is only because we are prejudiced by our daily experience.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Control Over Experiments - Getting the Whole Picture

In previous blogs I discussed how physicists choose a role or social contract in which they are cast as specialists and professors, not as power brokers or politicians. The last blog argued that this casting choice is a way of cementing and deepening power, both because it gives scientists a special status and realm of control like that of priests in the temples of progress, and because it frees them from the obligations that would come from being responsible for the social and moral ramifications of their own work. Now I'll discuss two other ingredients in the power equation.

We have seen that physics strives for the power to make nature do something over and over again on demand according to our whims, and even to take nature apart; nature becomes our slave rather than our partner. Similar levels of control and power can not be obtained over even the most docile people. Consider the power given by a system of pipes and taps providing running water. Such a contrast with the power that would be offered by keeping servants or dedicated workers - they would talk to you as they brought the water, change their pattern slightly or greatly each day, not respond with the same alacrity as a water tap, and sometimes be unavailable, maybe even leave permanently or die. Clearly nature offers far greater opportunities for control and power than people do. A physicist who chooses to focus her energy on nature rather than people is making, from this perspective, a power-maximizing choice. A simple calculation is enough to see that the greatest success in obtaining control via politics and power games will still leave you at sea struggling against new waves; if science-based control is the only kind available, why not cling to this rock? Scientific knowledge can seem like the only certainty, the only lighthouse in an uncertain world; what does a scientist lose by abdicating her role and responsibility for society as a whole? In other words, if the overriding goal is power and control; if this goal is used as the measure of truth as exemplified by physics' emphasis on experimental reproducibility and analysis, then a policy of specialization, technical roles, and abdication of responsibility for society is the only reasonable choice.

Going further, it is fair to say that for many individual physicists (and scientists) science is the way of maximizing their own personal power and security. Whatever Einstein's actual character was, the popular caricature of Einstein as a man who was socially incompetent contains a grain of truth about physicists as group - many of us don't do as well with people as with experiments and equations; it is striking how many of us have poor emotional awareness, empathy, communication, leadership, and group skills. And even more deeply, there can be a lack of trust for people, a sense of alienation, a need for refuge and security. People like this can be found in all walks of life; however if they discover at a young age that they do well with math or machinery, and that not only nature but society rewards their scientific efforts, then science can easily become a holy grail. This powerful incentive results in the physics community having more socially challenged people than is normal in most other professions. What I am saying is that the professor/expert role maximizes power not only for physicists as a group, but also for many individual physicists who are much more comfortable with subservient nature up close and threatening society at arm's reach.

In summary, not only is the scientific method focused on obtaining total control over nature via experiments, but also physicists themselves seek out control and power, both by choosing physics in the first place and by insisting on a particular role in society which is carefully chosen to promote their own status, security, and freedom from social responsibility. One of the hallmarks of natural philosophy is its focus on experimental control. From a certain perspective that has been widely popularized, this looks noble and clear-sighted; one talks "laws of nature," the search for a "theory of everything," etc. But the unspoken truth is that down to its very heart science and the scientific community are alloyed, joined, infected with the search for power and security. The popularized story about science is a true but small part of the picture; from a more human perspective one sees a much larger tapestry, with the scientific community taking its place in the larger human community, and with many threads including responsibility and its absence, respect and disrespect, social contracts, personal talents and weaknesses, etc. As with all human stories, a lot of wisdom (wisdom! not only knowledge!) and love is needed to understand, care for, guide, regulate, and prune the scientific community and its work.