(Well, a good idea’s a good idea…)
So hello to all the Bloggers and all our ships at sea!
Today I wanted to talk about education. Specifically, science education.
Boy, there sure is a lot of it, isn’t there?
I mean of the pop-science bestseller and the Discovery channel special presentation type — a lot of it. And it’s all very interesting, notwithstanding some of the more “QFT hip hip!” offerings…all very interesting indeed, but it doesn’t start with the basics as much as it probably should.
So today (well…actually a week ago) I was contemplating the little matter of the four forces: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, electromagnetism, and gravity, as we call them. And it struck me that of these, only “gravity” is a good and necessary and true and artful word…astronomy (you may or may not know) being the first science, it scooped up all the most poetic language for itself before the other disciplines had fairly started, and to this day it continues the tradition of artful naming: we speak of hydrogen burning in the core, the helical rising of Sirius, the first extrasolar planet to be discovered was named Osiris. Astronomy’s the most literary of the sciences, sketching vast sweeps of space and time in cool yet thrillingly dramatic language, describing processes in a way psychology only wishes it had gotten to first. So: “gravity”, or “gravitation”…while not strictly an astronomical concept, it partakes of astronomy’s brilliant naming-tactics, perhaps because gravity is the physical concept most important to astronomical endeavours…
But the names of the other three forces suck. Don’t they?
Worse than that, they don’t reveal much. Newton frankly admitted that the name “gravity” might as well be “black magic”, for all it really explained about how it works…but in this limitation there’s a certain felicitous reward for the careful thinker: the word “gravity” is essentially empirical, descriptive, and so it highlights our lack of knowledge about the processes underlying that description. What is “gravity”? Merely the principle that masses are attracted to other masses. And until Einstein, it was a principle that defied the explication of origin. It just was what it was: gravity.
A fitting word. Could’ve come from Greek mythology: “necessity”. The meaning is right there, like a smack in the eye with a snowball.
Take “electromagnetism”, though; a word that seems to explain much, but because of that seeming actually frustrates the seeking after knowledge. From “electricity” and “magnetism”, words which once described empirically and mysteriously in the manner of “gravity”, but which being turned to very practical uses acquired the aspect of thought-blockers. Electricity is something you make and buy; magnetism is something you use and sell. And “electromagnetism” isn’t so much a description of their relationship as it is an assumption of comprehension that doesn’t really exist — a portmanteau in place of a distinct meaning. How hard is it to explain to people what is and is not electromagnetism? It’s very hard: that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon seems counterintuitive to most people; that radiation is a category including both electromagnetic and non-electromagnetic phenomena seems just plain wilfully confusing on the part of the scientists who make up and apply such terms. The artless neologisms go right down to the land of constituent particles: the “electron” orbits the proton (well, not really it doesn’t, but there you go — confusion), but why is it an “electron”, instead of something else? Why do we get that “electro-” bit in there? There’s nothing particularly “electro-” about the particle, in our modern assumption of what that prefix’s derivation stands for; it’s just a particle. It just does what it does.
Why call it anything, after all?
If what you call it doesn’t describe its nature.
And the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force…these are obviously just right out, just really bad names. They’re forces associated with the atomic nucleus, fine: but what does that mean? And one is stronger than the other, okay…but so what?
We could stand to have some better names. More evocative names, and less tied to the randomness of discovery in our own history and linguistics. Newton got it right, but that was a long time ago, and we know more about gravity now than we did then.
Anyway so I thought, as I was standing in my elevator today. What would be a good way of talking about these forces, that exist for real whether we have names for them or not, that actually described what they did? Even if you couldn’t get the poetry in there, there’s got to be something better than “electroweak”…so just anything, anything will do. So, okay. As Venus Flytrap tells us, “tron” is a Swahili word meaning “do” (little joke there) — well, okay fine! “Do” is a good place to start! But what is the “doing” that these doohickeys do?
The elevator doors open, to find me offering these preliminary suggestions:
The Making force
The Changing force
The Communicating force
The Reciprocal force
And I’m still working these out, of course, still toying with them…
But what the hell, it’s a blog.
And anyway their forces may not be forces, right? “Force”, after all — like “love” — is just a word, really. And so the best we can hope for from it is that it stays in a constant relation with its real-world correlate, definitionally speaking. But, maybe that relation is slipping these days, just a little bit? What is a “force”? Very soon now, it will be a hundred years since old Albert explained what Newton couldn’t — that gravity comes to us indirectly, via the curvature of spacetime. Well, Newton could hardly have guessed at this! He was used to thinking about force…
And gravity may not be one…though it undeniably has one. But mostly what gravity does is allow us to have (and participate in!) something a person could call a universe. Without gravity, no stars, no galaxies, no planets or moons or comets or asteroids or…well, really anything, apart from a lot of molecular hydrogen just zooming around. So…what’s a good name for that force?
Besides gravity, I mean…
Gravity’s the real stinker: what’s it all about, eh? Everything else folds in nice and neatly to simple concepts, but gravity’s the contextualizing force, and it may be more than that still…but like what birds are, we just don’t know. What it is. If you see what I mean. To say what gravity is, we sort of need to know what mass is, what matter is. What is matter? We just don’t know. We know what energy is, pretty much: stuff that makes stuff happen. Or not happen. Okay, maybe we don’t know what it is, but we know why we call it what we do, and that’s something anyway. Isn’t it?
The Making force, the Changing force, the Communicating force…but what’s getting Made and Changed, what’s Communicating and why? To Make is to create particle masses by playing around with them…but what are they? How do we even know they’re there? Absent their gravitational interactions, the only way is by measuring how much energy it takes to overcome their inertia…people talk about inertial mass vs. gravitational mass all the time, as you may know. However, the only thing we really know about inertia is that it’s related to isotropy, the symmetry of space and time that yields the physical constants…such knowing arriving in our heads thanks to the woman people always say doesn’t exist, the elusive Genius Female Physicist herself, Emily Noether.
A suggestive name, considering how deeply Einstein’s Relativity is indebted to her work…
But then if you follow that relationship of influence around a little bit, you might stop at some point and say “now waitasecond…except for the gravitational effects, how is this gravity stuff any different from inertia, damn it?”
To which I would reply: well, it keeps the universe being a universe, doesn’t it? So that’s something, isn’t it?
Or is it?
Well, we just don’t know.
Snow falls in Vancouver, like a million tiny little white elevators; straight from outta the neverending sky. Covering the cars with all that feathery cold stuff. Little constellations of frozen water, wheeling soundlessly through the black void.
Jesus, don’t get me started on water, though…
Or we’ll be here all night.
And damn it I’ve got presents to wrap, before I go to bed.
All that paper I’ve got to get off that roll…
See you tomorrow, Bloggers!