La Recherche

La Recherche just issued a catalog of preconceptions in science. It is especially interesting in light of the recent controversy surrounding books by Lee Smolin and Peter Woit.

The first article is about the following preconception: Science fights second-handed ideas (they translated as “second-handed ideas” what I translated as “preconceptions”, the original French being “idées reçues”). It is an interesting discussion of how the ideal model of Descartes to isolate “what is certain” is seldom followed and, instead, normal sociology applies where dominant ideas must be fought in science to introduce new ideas.

Highly recommended reading. If you speak French, that is…

Scale relativity corner

I’ve been invited to participate in a new blog on scale relativity. I find the opportunity extremely interesting, but I strongly cautioned the original author about what appears to be blatant copyright infringement of Nottale’s work. The author is trying to address that point now, but since he asked Laurent Nottale for advice, he prefers to leave the site in the state it was in when the e-mail was sent. In any case, I find that Nottale’s text may be appropriate for a book, but not for on-line reading (even if some chapters can be downloaded freely).

A New Kind of Science – Disappointed

I’ve been somewhat disappointed by A New Kind of Science. OK, the main point is as fascinating as ever, that we can study mathematics and possibly physics using computer simulations and relatively simple programs. But 1200 pages on this topic? Give me a break! The overall style is extremely verbose. And while Wolfram advocates that his emphatic style adds clarity, I personally find it annoying to read “I’m a genius” every other page. It’s the first science book in a long time that I ended up speed reading at about 2 seconds per page. I’ll probably return to this book later, but for the moment, I’m sort of fed up with it.

Thibault Damour explaining science to the layman

I am also currently reading “Entretiens sur la Multitude du Monde” by Thibault Damour and Jean-Claude Carrière. It’s a dialogue between a physicist and a “layman” (a cineast and author), which I find very interesting as a case study of difficult communication. Since I know what Damour refers to, I’m somewhat puzzled at what appears to be the understanding Carrière gets after the discussion. Often, I find myself thinking: “I wouldn’t have explained it that way”.

Carrière expresses my unease very well at one point. After Damour starts making references to rather complex topics (the book addresses general relatitvity, quantum mechanics, etc), Carrière observes that at that point, he has no choice but to “believe”, instead of actually understanding. And he points out that when this happens, science becomes indistinguishable from religion. The term “layman” which scientists often use to characterize non-scientists is not random.

I am especially puzzled by the fact that Damour simply asked Carrière to “give up” about general relativity or even the notion of curved space, when it is actually so easy to explain what it is about by using Earth as an example. You know the “layman” won’t understand what a stress-energy tensor is, fine. So explain general relativity without it!

“Special relativity for Dummies” back on-line

On a related topic, a recent thread entitled “Relativity without tears” on sci.physics.research practically brought tears to my eyes. How is it possible, 100 years after Einstein, that we still have folks who can do math but totally fail to grasp special relativity? This and a recent comment on this blog suggesting that Einstein was wrong prompted me to dig up in dusty corners of my hard drive an old page I had written 8 years ago in an attempt to make special relativity intuitive to the layman.

I know that this explanation usually works with any kid aged 10 or more. I wish this is how special relativity was taught, instead of the constant blabbering about “inertial reference frames” and “forget all your intuitions”. Crap!

La Cité des Sciences – On-line lectures

Another link mostly for French-speaking readers: the Cité des Sciences has a series of on-line videos about a large number of topics in science. They are generally extremely interesting. I came there after hearing about a debate between Thibault Damour and Lee Smolin. I recently listened to a talk on how to interpret quantum mechanics, which I found interesting, but which also left me the same bitter taste of “the layman will never understand anything about quantum mechanics if we keep presenting it this way”.


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