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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

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Physics by Poets

Research is in full swing so I’ve been spending a lot of late nights in the office (and have been a bit slow to blog—sorry about that!) … here’s a photo out of my office window taken at the beginning of another long evening:

Yeah, those are some Feynman diagrams that I didn’t want to forget—I drew them on my window using a chalk marker. Actually, this picture is meant to be a bit of a joke: diagrams of this type are called Penguin diagrams, so the picture above is a bunch of flying penguins over Ithaca’s Cayuga Lake. (If you’re keeping up with my posts about Feynman diagrams I’ll eventually have a lot to say about penguins and why they’re so interesting.) Anyway, my calling in life is in physics and not poetry but—that being said—I think it’s cute.

I was reminded about the interplay between physics and poetry since I usually listen to something in the background while doing calculations; today it was This American Life. I should explain that after dinner time there’s two kinds of physics that I do:

  1. The kind where I’m trying to figure out something that I didn’t understand properly during the day—in which case I’m usually listening to jazz or classical music to help me concentrate, or
  2. The kind of where I’m just churning through a tedious calculation or typing up some code—in which case I usually listen to podcasts where I can half-listen to a narrative while doing something that’s otherwise kind of boring.

Tonight was a calculation night, and this week’s This American Life podcast was a rerun that I hadn’t heard in a while titled, “Family Physics.” The idea was that they’d tell stories whose overarching theme is the application of principles of physics to human interactions. I really enjoyed the episode, but as they mention in the introduction, physicists groan when popular writers do this (New Yorker, I’m looking at you).

In the 80s and 90s there were several popular books that tried to tie together themes in quantum physics with themes in eastern mysticism. Unfortunately for physicists, part of the effect of these books was to create this image that theoretical physics was somehow “mystical” and “philosophical” in a way that scientists tend to abhor. There’s nothing inherently wrong with identifying common themes between unrelated ideas—that’s poetry—but it’s important to note that physics is a science and is based on rigid scientific principles of rationalism and backed by the scientific method. I’m not saying the books weren’t any good—Fritjof’s Capra’s (a former theoretical physicist) Turning Point was adapted into a nice movie that became one of my favorites in high school—but they weren’t actually books about science.

Anyway, one offshoot of this were countless popular-level accounts of how Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is supposed to tell us something deep about human existence. There’s something very charming and—indeed—poetic about this, since nature is something that is independent of humanity and so “truths” coming from nature must somehow be “deeper” than those written by people who don’t invoke fancy words like the cosmological principle.

Of course, this is wrong; using nature as an analogy for abstract human ideas makes them no more “true” than using human analogies to describe abstract ideas in nature. The analogies can be cute, they can even be insightful, but in the end the analogies themselves are not science. (Nor is quantum physics actually telling you how you should break up with your girlfriend, etc.)

The bottom line, of course, is that sometimes these analogies are so elegant that they become enjoyable and valuable in themselves. This is what I consider poetry. (Though I concede that more cultured readers may scoff at this as a simplistic definition! Like I said, I’m a scientist and not a poet.) Along these lines, there are three works—each in different media—that really stick out for me, and that I recently found myself thinking about while listening to This American Life. (I had to stop working on my calculation for a while. 🙂 )

  1. Godel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter, who is the son of Nobel Laureate physicist Robert Hofstadter. The book, however, is not about physics, but rather the common themes between Godel’s incompleteness theorem in mathematics, M.C. Escher’s graphic arts, and Bach’s music. The book is an absolute pleasure to read, though I admit that I have yet to finish it because it requires some attention to properly digest.
  2. The photography of Naglaa Walker collected in on physics. These are more along the lines of the 90s New Yorker articles invoking the Uncertainty Principle in that they make superficial connections between physics ideas and her photographs, but it’s done without any pretense of depth and I enjoy Naglaa’s wit.
  3. Finally, Hypermusic Prologue, an opera by Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall that purports to draw from Randall’s seminal work on warped extra dimensions, something near and dear to my research. I haven’t seen the opera (I missed the adaptation at the Guggenheim in January), but am really intrigued by the idea. I think scientists need to have a facility with explaining their research to a broad audience, but the choice of medium here is—for many—just as esoteric as the physics behind it. Because of this I am curious to see what kind of interesting new analogies Randall and composer Hector Parra were able to develop.

In fact, this is the reason why physicists (or maybe it’s just me?) often get so annoyed when people make very glib or uninspired analogies to “deep ideas” in science: it’s because there’s so much more that one can make out of these analogies!

A final remark: one of my favorite magazines, Symmetry Magazine, is an excellent particle physics outreach publication and has a regular section where they feature science-inspired artists. There’s been a lot of fun and interesting graphic art over the past year which I encourage you to check out in their back-issues. I should explain that I view these as being rather different from analogies based on physics; instead, they are inspired by the aesthetics of physics itself (a common example is the shape of the ATLAS detector). This week’s artist, Kate Nichols, takes a more active role in the science of her work.

Anyway, maybe the conclusion is that I’m better off doing physics than being an art critic. 🙂 [Stick to your day job, Flip!]


[Some of you have said that you’re waiting for more Feynman diagram posts—there are a few that I’m working on, I promise!]