Sunday, February 04, 2007

Guest Post: Stefan Hofmann

Volle Dröhnung When Sabine asked me to write about my motives for spending so much time with physics and in the physics community, she offered me a nice opportunity to bring those motives back into my consciousness, and to unearth my very own roots in a very human and bold venture.

Curiosity is a universal human factor only to a certain extent. For each individual, the amount of curiosity is never a constant in time. It changes due to physiological and due to psychological processes. While the former might be traced back to our genetic blueprints, the latter are literally medium effects, created by the interactions between the individual and its local social embedding. Interactions might consist of posing questions out of curiosity, not intended to fulfill the listeners expectations, and an induced reaction might consist of digesting the different levels of answers.

When you observe children acting out their curiosity, you might wonder why we should be concerned about curiosity at all? The answer is: in the beginning there is never a lack of questions, but an absence of good and honest answers. Perhaps the most important characteristic of a good answer is that it aims at establishing an understanding, at increasing the depth of perception. In the spectrum of possible responses, the subset of honest answers includes the honorable "I don't know" and answers that do not replace one unknown concept by another, as in: "Why is the dog behaving like this? - It is instinct, period." Unfortunately, bad answers tend to satisfy the appetite for getting to the bottom of things and diminish our curiosity.

Curiosity can be revived in many ways. One path to it lies in the confrontation with questions that come along with a precise framework to formulate and answer them. Those questions can be viewed either as interesting or boring, they might be considered as being trivial or not of general enough interest. However, these kind of questions offer the opportunity to safely conclude to what extend they have been answered, independently of a specific social embedding.

It was this liberating aspect of the analytical school of thinking that fascinated me, together with the solid ground a precise framework offers: solid enough to analyze processes with powerful (although possibly restrictive) methods that do not care about me being a member of a majority or a minority group or about my social status.

This is the positive outcome of my experience with chicken pox when I was sixteen and found enough time and less distraction to work through a book on analysis written for students in mathematics. It was a lucky accident and my anger is still growing that it had to be an accident. Although mathematics appeared in a new and beautiful light, the intention grew to apply it to something in order to explore its power. This is how physics entered the stage of my interests.

One of my depressing experiences with physics in school is that it has only little in common with the science of physics. You might object that we are being taught some of the basic laws of nature in school, and what else should physics be? Well, the interesting part is not to know some laws by heart, but the whole school of thinking and imagination behind it, the methodology. Surely it is fascinating to rethink and recover the thoughts of the thinkers before us, but at the end of the day we want to have the means to boldly go where no one has gone before us. If we decide not to follow this path, we should do so as free and strong thinkers, not just because we didn't have any real choice in the first place.

But isn't is risky or sometimes even dangerous to question the very foundations of our views of the world? Dangerous for a peaceful mind? Perhaps it is, enlightenment starts often with deconstructing our prejudices, with the first step towards a dark abyss. It is not too difficult to take these fears serious. What seems harder to imagine for many is how frustrating it can be to live in a world constrained by ignorance. Ignorance is a brutal prison for our mind and psyche.

For me physics was and still is the key for breaking out, or at least the hope for a life after ignorance.

Stefan Hofmann is a cosmologist at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, where he thinks hard to shed some light on the dark side of the Universe.


See also the previous contributions to the inspiration-series by

and my related guest post at Asymptotia 'Sabine Hossenfelder: My Inspiration'.


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6 comments:

Lumo said...

Shouldn't it have been Stefan-Boltzmann? ;-) Otherwise nice.

Bee said...

Hi Lubos,

ah, you know, though we Germans like to celebrate the dead guys, we still prefer to work with people who are alive ;-)

Humm - but a ghost-post from a dead physicist would indeed be really cool, I should keep that in mind.

Best,

B.

stefan said...

Dear Stefan,

that's nice to read from you, and thank you for this thought-provoking essay!

Curiosity, the eagerness to learn new things, and the audacity to ask questions is really a very important prerequisite to do physics. I have been wondering for some time how it comes that this kind of inquiring mindset is not shared by everyone - whether by "genes", or as a result of the circumstances of living... exactly the issue you are touching on...

On the other hand, I am not sure if this mindset is not an essential feature of anyone working in the sciences - not just in physics - or even in the humanities. Of course, there are big differences in the methods used, and in the way of formalization. But the unifying treat of all these human activities may be that you go on and ask questions that have not been asked before, and try to find answers?

Now, this is something that school - at least in Germany, let's say - seems to have a problem to convey. Since we somehow and for some reason ended up being physicists, we can see clearly how little relation there is between sitting in class and learning three Ohm's laws, and the spirit and soul of the science.

But here, I am also wondering if this problem is not the same for, say, history. How much relation is there between what one experiences in school and what it means to be a real historian? I don't know... Anyway, it's probably very important when growing up to have at some point someone who can get across the fascination for a topic - may it be physics or history...

Cheers, one of the many other Stefans ;-)

QUASAR9 said...

"enlightenment starts often with deconstructing our prejudices, with the first step towards a dark abyss."

Hi Stefan, often wanting to be 'original' and to find or create something new, can be frustrating.
Oddly enough many discoveries are by accident (or by chance)...
oh America? who put that there said Christpher Columbus
oops who ordered that? upon the discovery of the muon by Isidor Isaac Rabi The only way to do Physics

Sometimes it is good just to dare to imagine, to take things with a pinch of salt, to dare to think outside the box, and voila ...
oh why didn't I think of that.

Me, I just like to sit back and enjoy the ride - lol!

Yidun said...

Dear Stefan,

Nice article about your motives! It's fun to read!

Dear bee,

It is a great idea to have guest posts about their motivations of doing physics! However, it may only work in famous blogs like yours. :-) If I asked someone to guest blog in my space, there would be only two possible consequences: I got rejected; or the nice article, if written, would not be noticed by others. There might be a third one with practically neglegible probability, i.e. # of visits to my blog would largely increase. ;-)

Rae Ann said...

Thanks Bee and Stefan for sharing your story. Very interesting!