Lent of Physics Blogging

For a while, we had a blog carnival of physics writing, Philosophia Naturalis. However, it looks rather moribund today: the last installment to date was on 4 October (at Dynamics of Cats), and the “next available hosting opportunity” was the first of November, which is already almost a month gone.

Combined with the recent description of the physics blogoweb as “an intellectual wasteland,” and we’ve got plenty of excuses to feel a little depressed.

Oh, and have you noticed that ScienceBlogs.com still can’t do math notation? So much for discussing science the way that, you know, actual scientists do. So much for reflecting the increasing quantitative aspect of the life sciences, discussing interdisciplinary work, or doing anything beyond the same old carping over innumeracy. Maybe they’re intimidated by that old “each equation cuts the readership in half” bromide. Or maybe they think that allowing the use of calculus and other such scary mathematics would be “bad framing.”

Or maybe there’s just no push for it.

I take some cheer in recalling a conversation I had during my Thanksgiving vacation, when I visited the family who had been my next-door neighbors throughout my childhood. I sometimes wonder if they save up their science questions for my annual visits. This time, as we were eating the blueberry bread I had baked, I was asked about “that surfer guy’s theory of everything.” At that time, I was vaguer on the details than I am now (Sean Carroll basically explained why I wasn’t immediately eager to go haring off to investigate), and besides, my next-door neighbors aren’t fourth-year physics majors ready to lap up the story of [tex]SL(2,\mathbb{C}) \times SU(3) \times SU(2) \times U(1)[/tex] and the time it tried to embed itself in a noncompact real form of [tex]E_8[/tex].

So, I ended up spending a little while talking about what we hope a “theory of everything” might achieve (and why the “everything” in that moniker isn’t really a good description), about the symmetries of physical law, what a “group” is, that kind of thing. I realized a little while afterward that there’s so much fun stuff in the “background” material to all these wonder-of-the-week stories, and people like my next-door neighbors are just as happy to hear about stuff we already know. (Isn’t it ultimately rather, well, stupid to expect pop-science coverage of string theory to be any good, when we physics boffins know that string theory starts with the quantization of relativistic one-dimensional objects, and neither relativity nor quantum mechanics have been explained at all well?) The idea that popularized science has to be about “the news” is completely mistaken, even though it seems to drive the publication model of too many media outlets.

I mean, how much of Cosmos was about material which was speculative at the time, and how much covered territory which had been well and solidlly established over the previous decades?

Combine that with blueberry bread, and you might be in luck.

I’m still rather bummed about the Philosophia Naturalis carnival floundering. And about equation support, and all that other stuff. If we amateurs are spending too much time ejecting hot air from our various orifices out at the frontier and too little time explaining known science, maybe we’re screwing ourselves over. We sure aren’t very good at building an infrastructure, either technological or social, are we?

Maybe I should go see what I can bake with the abnormally large quantities of canned pineapple we seem to have in our pantry; I bet that’ll cheer me up.

10 thoughts on “Lent of Physics Blogging”

  1. There’s a heck of a lot of physics I don’t know – it was my worst subject in university, at least until I hit Diff EQs, and having it at 8:00 a.m. didn’t help. Yet I think when watching other drivers tailgate that they never learned enough physics. I’d like to see more real-world examples taught in school along with risk probablility and critical thinking. BTW the research done at smartrisk.ca says the way to keep young people from smoking, dangerous driving, etc. is not to lecture about risks but to teach them critical thinking. Useful, yes? Physics creeps in to a lot of things. I’m less interested in interstellar dust than in what makes high-tech materials work. Or is that just engineering?

    When no one’s jumping with enthusiasm at your topic, try to find some fresh angles – materials science – extreme engineering – GalaxyZoo.com, charismatic mad mathies, young geniuses, teen-friendly interfaces. Did you know that people learn network construction equally well from reading the theory and from putting together network “puzzles” on computer? Maybe there’s another way to get to physics – the beauty of the math?

    When I was a kid I realized that trees had both randomness and regularity; I could see that a maple tree had the same angle between the veins of its leaves and between its branches; but I never made the jump to fractals. The prevalence of fractals is a sign of the uniformity of the forces operating inside and out (structure formation as well as erosion, wind, etc.).

    I read that the solution to the string theory might be to treat the strings as eddies (long skinny whirlpools?) in the aether rather than multi-dimensional abstractions. Another’s post (forget where) about how Einstein didn’t mean there was no aether when he said it didn’t have some characteristic or other (see how precise I am) encourages speculation this way.

    In short, cast a broader net and energize!

  2. About your penultimate paragraph —

    Like I said, string theory comes from the application of quantum mechanics to the motion of wiggly objects which obey Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Therefore, it’s consistent with special relativity; it inherits the basic properties of that theory. So, when Einstein said, “There is no preferred frame of reference,” that applies to strings too.

    Also, the bearded physicists of the nineteenth century invented the “luminiferous aether” to explain how light could travel through empty space: if light was a wave, they thought, then something has to be “waving.” Quite a sensible deduction, really. But now we know that light is photons, quantum thingums which in some experiments behave like classical waves and in other situations act more like classical particles, so the need for an aether is obviated.

    You can choose to call something else “the aether,” if you like, but nothing in the Universe actually has the properties which Maxwell and company ascribed to their aether. Other than the chance to use a pretty cool word, I don’t see the point (and you’re probably just going to confuse people).

  3. Yes, “aether” may not be the best choice of words by the above writer, but it turns out that totally empty space does have a tremendous amount of structure to it. But structure in what?

    Call it what you like, space, the universe, or the physical playing field, it’s quite possible that there are no strings, or even particles and forces for that mater. It’s possible that all those things are just mathematical constructs that occur naturally from some operation on and within whatever it is that fills the volume we call our universe. Long skinny whirlpools, vibrating strings, or just mathematical equations operating on a background we don’t even perceive as being there and for which there is no macro-physical corollary, it’s the search that’s the fun part. Some people forget that part, the fun part.

  4. If you want to liven up physics blogging, what we need is some good creationist-bashing; that’s one of the main reasons I find myself checking out Pharyngula and ERV when I’m procrastinating. And following a link from the comments at ERV, I found that there’s ample fodder: “Sal” Cordova is trying to learn some physics (aren’t creationists cute when they try to understand science?) — and of course, he’s taking his usual “Gee, I’ve got a highschool understanding of this science; but that’s enough for me to spot all of its naturalistic flaws and support a theistic alternative.”

    Here’s Cordova’s attempts at learning special relativity: http://www.youngcosmos.com/blog/archives/86
    (Man, it really throws a new light on these folks to see them on my own turf!)

    I tried to log in to answer his questions, but they don’t allow discussion there (fearless intellectual adventurers that they are). I’ve very amused to see his favorable reference (a “very good paper”) to van Flandern though. Van Flandern’s paper is utter dreck (that was completely shredded by Carlip in a follow-up article). So typical of the creationist to feel free to praise trash that he isn’t close to understanding.

    We’ve been hearing warnings from the biologists that the wacko fundies are going to be heading for the physical sciences next. Here they come!

  5. This isn’t the first time Sal has made a fool of himself, of course. And creationists have been attacking cosmology for a while now, too.

    Creationism is the morally bankrupt pursuit of the factually wrong. It angers and saddens me that such people can exist in this world, and that their whines attract so many sympathetic ears. Believe me, I get much more joy out of writing about supersymmetric quantum mechanics than I do from bashing the cdesign proponentsists, even though the latter is much easier.

    I suppose, if that’s what’s truly necessary, so it shall be. . . .

  6. Hi, folks. I’m the person behind Philosophia Naturalis. I’m sorry about the hiatus, but a new edition of the carnival just went up on Friday (Nov. 30). It’s listed on the PN home page now.

    The reason for the hiatus is simple – nobody was submitting any material. Nobody (almost) was volunteering to host either. I could always do the hosting myself, but it’s a real drag if I have to find all the material too.

    By the way, mollishka has hosted one edition of PN – thanks mollishka. How about the rest of you? It would be easier than starting and running your own carnival, I think.

    And another thing, if anyone wondered why PN wasn’t showing up as often, a simple email to me would have received the answer. Email address is available through the PN home page.

    I now have some good ideas about how to stir up some activity, apart from spamming the emails of relevant bloggers I know of (which number quite a few). Again, check the PN home page over the next couple of days for details.

    Looking forward to receiving your feedback.

  7. As I said a couple posts after this, I’ll be happy to host an installment of Philosophia Naturalis — but after mid-January, please, because both my day job and my blogo-life are dumping a lot of reading and writing tasks on me right now.

    I appreciate that running a carnival takes a lot of work; with luck, my post made relatively clear how I was upset over more than one thing. Anyway, I’m eagerly anticipating hearing your ideas for stirring up some excitement.


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