Monday, October 01, 2012

Clearly foggy

"I am ... rather skeptical about "popular" science in general, in particular when I bump into those books pretending to address in "popular" language formidable mathematical conjectures, or esoteric concepts such as black holes, superstrings, and dark matter. Quite often, skimming through their first chapters, the non-professional reader gets the impression that everything is as clear as day, to realize well before the end that it is in fact quite a foggy day."


Plato Hagel said...

Interesting link supporting quote Bee.

The advent of nano-sciences and of increasingly sophisticated tools of analysis has since long time hinted that the most ancient law of physics needs now an “update”.
Eureka! The Polytechnic of Milan updates the principle of Archimedes!

Uncle Al said...

"that it is in fact quite a foggy day"

not(not(p or q) or not(p or not(q)) = p
J. Automated Reasoning, 19(3) 263 (1997)

...that it is in fact quite a foggy night. In the days of sail the sextant ruled. Most sailers could not use a sextant - but they did not get to vote for steering the ship.

uair01 said...

Bee, I cannot find the quote using the links you provided. Could you give a more exact pointer please?

I would like to read the quote in context so that I can decide for myself if he is talking about the popular string theory books of Brian Greene. In that case I totally agree with the quote :-)

uair01 said...

"I am ... rather skeptical about "popular" science in general"

And Bee, don't you think this is a bit of an arrogant statement? What am I to think about that (without context) being one of the "populace" myself? I try to keep up with science by reading those "popular" science books. How should I do it otherwise? I feel a bit insulted by such a flat-out remark.

John Baez said...

Don't be insulted: learn enough science so you can read the real stuff, at least in one field! Then you'll see why Sabine is skeptical (if you don't already).

Bee said...

Uair01: The quote isn't from the website. It's from a book he wrote. Sorry for the sloppy reference.

Christine said...

I think that the problem is not the term "popular". I became interested in science by reading Asimov and Sagan. They offered a high level of science "popularization", but unfortunately such a thing no longer exists, in my opinion. I'm extremely skeptical too. In any case, I agree with John Baez: the best thing to do is to begin learning the material, from textbooks or other means. Not everyone is able to do that, tough, for many reasons.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

I think the problem is that there is a gap in what is available. There are loads of "popular" books on a level "for everybody" and then there's textbooks. I would sometimes really appreciate if there were semi-popular books in between. I usually don't want to buy an (expensive) textbook that might take me months to read in a field that I don't actually intend to work on. But I still would usually like to see more details than what the popular science account has to offer. Like, you know, maybe on the level of a colloquium rather than a public lecture. Show me the figures and some equations, but spare me all the details that you'd put into a review article. Best,


Plato Hagel said...

Yep the fog....sounds familiar.

Certainty and uncertainty until you actually see it applied to life it becomes a localize issue while remembering you see the larger perspective:)

We assume the landscape is covered by fog so we can’t see where the real peak is, we can only feel around and detect slopes and local maxima.Lee Smolin

Thanks John:)


Plato Hagel said...

This always helps.....Science Saturday

Even now with the hope that all science is beyond the literature it helps to recognize that current technology changes the way things assumed by text book, lead the way in terms of understanding.

So this is a recognition of the "ole work horse" in current science acknowledgement beyond the affairs seen by written literature alone.

In a sense the applicable feature of ones feeling as portrayed by Bee as to levels of expertise, one applies to the video dialogue and our use of the technology to forward the public coherency to beyond the dramas portrayed on television.

So you've changed the parameters of thinking here to include a wider perspective of the issue beyond the subject of this blog entry.

So one would encourage the institutions of learning to move forward with PI's example of archives of discussions on specific subjects to help with this effort.


Phillip Helbig said...

"I became interested in science by reading Asimov and Sagan."

Same here. I even met Asimov once.

"unfortunately such a thing no longer exists"

There are some good new popular science books. Bob Kirshner's The Extravagant Universe is excellent. Most things by John D. Barrow are quite good. Simon Singh isn't too bad either.

Note: There are also many bad popular science books, of course.

Kay zum Felde said...

You're right Bee, a semi-popular book would be excellent to become familiar with a new field in physics or in science in general.

Take care Kay

Christine said...

@Bee: Would you say that Penrose's book "A Road to Reality" fits into the "semi-popular" gap? Or even Einstein's biography "Subtle Is the Lord" by
Abraham Pais?

@Phillip: Thanks for the suggestions.


Phillip Helbig said...

"Would you say that Penrose's book "A Road to Reality" fits into the "semi-popular" gap? Or even Einstein's biography "Subtle Is the Lord" by
Abraham Pais?"

Definitely not the Penrose book. There is certainly a need for books between the typical popular-science book and the technical monograph. Edward Harrison's Cosmology textbook (which everyone interested in cosmology should read) is a good example; more like it in other fields are needed. Penrose's book is too technical to be called semi-popular. As for Subtle is the Lord, yes, I think that might fit the bill in some sense. However, it is more a mixture of popular and technical stuff, rather than most stuff being semi-popular.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

I didn't read Penrose's book. And my memories of Pais' book are foggy at the best... Best,


Phillip Helbig said...

Penrose's book is good at what it does, it's just not semi-popular. In the last several years, Penrose has become known for some rather unorthodox views. However, in the book he is always careful to differentiate what is mainstream and what are his ideas (and, among the former, what is proven and what is still hypothesis, a distinction many don't make). I recommend the book, but the first edition has a huge number of typos. I think there is even a web page which lists those found by readers.

Pais's book is excellent; it's one of the few books I have read twice.

I also recommend, on its own merits, the movie Happy-Go-Lucky (review: There is a scene in a bookshop where the titles of several books can be glimpsed. I have read most of them. Yes, Penrose's The Road to Reality is one. Another one I remember was The Map that Changed the World (excellent book) and I believe there were a few by John Barrow. One can't see them all, but at 0:23 and 1:43 one can get a glimpse of the bookshop:

DocG said...

As a long term reader of popular science books, I must say I have a problem with those who want to argue that such books are useless and that the only way to understand the physics of today is to learn to "do the math."

I have a feeling that's true, so I won't argue on that score. But isn't there a serious problem when a field becomes so esoteric that only someone who's spent years mastering all the technicalities can hope to understand it? Sounds a bit like Hesse's Glass Bead Game, no?

Sure it's possible to argue that "real science" can only be understood by "real scientists." But by the same token, is it real science if no one but specialists can understand it?

I can see the use of specialized tools, both math and otherwise, for the purpose of investigating certain complex problems and doing certain technically demanding experiments. But if the results of this research can no longer be communicated to a reasonably well educated public, then what's the point?

Christine said...

Phillip: I read both books, thanks (although I've skipped some parts of Penrose's). I was just asking Bee to clarify her concept of "semi-popular" through those potential examples.


Christine said...

Phillip: agreed! Harrison's book on cosmology is one of the best books I've read during my undergraduate studies!

Christine said...

Phillip: how was your meeting w/ Asimov?

Bee said...

Hi Doc,

I didn't say they're useless. I just said they have a limited use. I did read a bulk of popular science introductions to special relativity and general relativity as a teenager. And I tend to share the sentiment of the about quote. It looks superficially understandable, but upon closer look you note that you didn't actually understand it. If all you want is to learn what people are discussing about these days, that's fine. If you want to discuss yourself, that's not sufficient. Best,


Arun said...

Wiki: The holographic principle was inspired by black hole thermodynamics, which implies that the maximal entropy in any region scales with the radius squared, and not cubed as might be expected. In the case of a black hole, the insight was that the informational content of all the objects which have fallen into the hole can be entirely contained in surface fluctuations of the event horizon.

This kind of assumes that the event horizon contains a normal volume. The Schwarzschild radius is proportional to the mass, and so the event horizon area is proportional to the square of the mass. In all normal objects (of which we have actually have the entropy rather than a speculation) the entropy scales with the mass, so the black hole entropy scaling as mass^2 is super-entropic, to coin a term.

Phillip Helbig said...

It was just a brief meeting with Asimov, at a science-fiction convention in Manhattan. This was in July 1983, very hot in New York (we got up at 5 in the morning to go to the beach because by 10 it was already so hot we had to leave), and I was passing through on my way to Germany, not knowing at the time that I would still be there almost 30 years later. As luck would have it, the convention was in New York at the same time I was, so I took the subway from Queens (Flushing) where I was staying into Manhattan and back every day.

I actually have an autograph from Asimov, on the back of my name badge. Otherwise, I don't collect autographs---the only other one I have is from Walter Koenig. :-) I just chatted briefly with Asimov about his plans for future science-fiction books; this was around the time that he had returned to writing science fiction. (I had read probably 100 of his non-fiction books before I read any of his science fiction. Except for his children's books and books which he edited (though perhaps containing a greater or less amount of material from Asimov himself), I think I have now read almost all of his books.) I think I actually suggested something which was incorporated into the third Lije Baley novel, though, since it was rather obvious, I doubt that that is the reason it showed up there; in fact, it had probably already occurred to Asimov himself in the 1950s (I think he later mentioned this somewhere).

Asimov gave a talk---as always with no notes and exactly 60 minutes long without looking at any watch or clock. He also spent a lot of time at the convention, not just before, during and after his talk, and was involved in various discussions etc, so it was interesting to be a part of this, even though my only one-on-one conversation with Asimov was the brief chat while getting the autograph.

Christine said...

Phillip: Ah, how nice. I think that if I met Asimov while in my youth I would tremble so much that I wouldn't be able to express a single word.

There is a story, if I remember correctly, that he was obsessed with time. He would look up his wrist clock every now and then. That gave him trouble with a girlfriend as she naturally interpreted that compulsion negatively. He could not avoid looking at the clock in the middle of a romantic moment with her.

Phillip Helbig said...

"There is a story, if I remember correctly, that he was obsessed with time. He would look up his wrist clock every now and then. That gave him trouble with a girlfriend as she naturally interpreted that compulsion negatively. He could not avoid looking at the clock in the middle of a romantic moment with her."

I don't remember that one (and I have read all three volumes of his autobiography). Certainly in his talks he didn't look at a watch or clock; probably he was so obsessed with time that he didn't need to. With regard to the girlfriend: Asimov admits that this area wasn't one of his strengths. He met his first wife on a blind date and the marriage didn't turn out very well. Only with his second wife, whom he met when he was about 50, did things start looking up.

Christine said...

Phillip: that was not written in his autobiography, but as a preamble to a story or essay. I don't recall where I read it, it was a long time ago, but I'm quite certain. Perhaps he was just trying to motivate the story/essay, not necessarily being a true case. But those preambles did have an autobiographical touch.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi All,

I would say that there have been written things that represent being good popular science books. Their authors being some of those already mentioned, such as Penrose, Barrow with another I would put into that category being Anthony Zee and arguably even David Z. Albert. Also there are older books still available such as the one Albert Einstein wrote which can give the general reader a good overview of the special and general theories of relativity. However, in end the for me what has a popular science book to most often fail is when it’s main focus is to have the author become popular rather than the science.



Don Foster said...

Let’s face it. Clearly there is a conspiracy and it’s been going on for some time now. Theoretical physicists have long been able to explain the standard model, renormalization, string theory – all that stuff – in clear and simple language, but have simply chosen not to. It is a matter of preserving their mystique, their elevated intellectual status.
Authors that break from the pack, that write popular science books of luminous clarity are viewed as the Bradley Mannings of the physics community which then is forced to send out shills, authors who’s sole purpose is to write confusing texts, entangle plant auras with quantum mechanics, muddy the waters, cover their tracks.
Surely theoretical physicists must be as adept at metaphor as they are at mathematics. They must be poets at heart, have imaginations that “bodies forth the forms of things unknown… turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” Surely they could explain Hilbert space to a four-year old if they chose to.
One can only hope they will get lonely, that their cloistered, locker-room camaraderie will no longer be enough. They will need to reach out, forego their arcane mathematics, embrace the mythos, and finally tell the tale.