About peculiar and unusual points of views

If every individual student follows the same current fashion in expressing and thinking about electrodynamics or field theory, then the variety of hypotheses being generated to understand strong interactions, say, is limited. Perhaps rightly so, for possibly the chance is high that the truth lies in the fashionable direction. But, on the off-chance that it is in another direction – a direction obvious from an unfashionable view of field theory – who will find it? Only someone who has sacrificed himself by teaching himself quantum electrodynamics from a peculiar and unusual point of view; one that he may have to invent for himself.

[Richard Feynman, Nobel prize lecture]

I think that the important thing in the above is teaching himself quantum electrodynamics. Nobody expects an outsider to bring anything to the field if he does not know at least the basics. On the other hand, anybody with an “unusual point of view” may have trouble using standard terminology.

Using non-standard terminology

Here is a simple example. Each time I talk about something as simple as Lorentz invariance, I just can’t bring myself to talking about “reference frames” or “mass increase”. Why not? Because when I tried to understand special relativity, these terms were an obstacle to my understanding, and I only finally grasped the meaning of Einstein’s discovery when I realized Lorentz’ transform was just a rotation with an hyperbolic cosine instead of a regular cosine, and that special relativity was just perspective in 4D.

Mathematically, it’s equivalent to the standard presentation. But once this became my mental model, any train-based analogy or mention of a reference frame seems just so primitive and awkward that I just cannot bring myself to use this terminology. I find it confusing, and I’m certainly not alone, since the vast majority of the engineers I talk to, while having been trained in special relativity, are unable to say anything sensible about it after 5 years without using it. Also, in my experience, my mental model makes it possible to deal in 5 minutes with problems that take 5 times longer with the usual approach.

There’s something good about standards…

On the other hand, to the trained physicist who, more often than not, kept using the traditional formalism and became quite familiar with it, seeing me use non standard terminology indicates I do not grasp the physics behind special relativity. Which, I believe, is totally false, but I can certainly see how one can come to this conclusion with the kind of superficial analysis you grant to the “a priori crackpot”.

On the other hand, reading more and more comments from various people with “big ideas”, I came to realize that often, I have myself trouble grasping an idea expressed in an unusual way. There is something to be said about standard terminology. Now, I think that I made a particular effort presenting my own ideas in a way that is not jargonesque and therefore relies on a background any reader should have. But apparently, I must have failed, because the feedback count to date is still practically zero.

Examples of good feedback

If you want to see what I would consider a good feedback, have a look at Misner’s objections to Yilmaz’s modifications of General Relativity. While I’m not completely through digesting the arguments, for the moment, I would tend to side with Misner here. I still suspect a good physicist could come up with similar arguments regarding my paper. But while I had my share of lousy feedback (in that case, ad-hominem attacks as opposed to physics arguments), I’m still waiting for any reasonable discussion of my ideas. Shrug.

Update: If you want to see the kind of physics I don’t like, read this thread on sci.physics.research. And you wonder after that why folks think that special relativity is complicated…

3 thoughts on “About peculiar and unusual points of views

  1. My way of seeing special relativity intuitively is the photon-bouncing-between-two-mirrors clock model. If the mirrors are parallel to the direction of boost then you get time dilation of this parallel-clock because the photon has to travel a longer route per circuit, and if the mirrors are perpendicular to the direction of boost then you get length contraction of the separation of the mirrors in this perpendicular-clock in order to ensure that the parallel & perpendicular clocks run at the same rate. The Lorentz transformations come out of simple geometric calculations in this model.

  2. Yes, this is the “radar method” view which I refer to somewhere in my paper. I agree that you can deduce the Lorentz transformation, but only as long as you assume that the speed of the photon is c no matter how you look at it.What I was referring to was the formulation of the Lorentz transform. It is most often written using “\gamma=\frac{1}{\sqrt{1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}}}”. I personally prefer to “think” about it as “\gamma=\cos \theta”, where \theta is the (imaginary for relativity) angle between one tangent coordinate systems and another.I personally find this approach much more intuitive in particular in accelerated scenarios, because the relativistic effects can be deduced from what \cos \theta will look like in the classical case (e.g. if you have contraction in the classical case because \cos \theta 1).I find it also esthetically pleasing that this is a very natural extension of the “normal” perspective. In other words, contrary to what my teachers kept telling me, I can successfully use my intuition and find the qualitative result without using maths.On the other hand, the original notation is so pervasive that just too many folks go “huh?”, and this is what I find unfortunate. In particular when the “huh?” has a strong tone of “you have no idea what you are talking about, relativity is complicated ya know…”

  3. Yes, everything follows from assuming that the speed of the photon is c no matter how you look at it. Surely, for classical special relativity, that’s a good thing to assume as your starting point?I like this photon-in-a-box viewpoint because it is grounded in physical experiment, so it is really easy to describe to people. I find that people are always surprised that that is all there is to special relativity, so then the discussion turns to why photons always travel at the same speed no matter how you look at them.I also like the hyperbolic rotation viewpoint that you describe, which I try to hold in my head at the same time as the photon-in-a-box viewpoint. The more equivalent but “different” viewpoints you can hold in your head at the same time the better your intuition, I think.I agree with your implied remark that people have far too much respect for “standard” ways of doing calculations, and that there is not enough time spent developing the ability to obtain qualitative results by direct application of physical intuition. We should all be able to use both approaches.

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