Extremist Physics: equations rule the World

Seven Equations that changed the World

Mathematician Prof. Ian Stewart’s cover feature in New Scientist (11 Feb) of this title reflects schizophrenia over the hubris of the extreme tendency in physics that claims equations make the World.  Consider

  • radio waves were invented consequential on Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism
  • radio waves travel according to the (d’Alembert) wave equation.

Of course radio waves existed, streaming out from the sun and stars, quite independently of mankind and didn’t wait for anyone to write down the wave equation.  The equations of physics are human constructs.  Stewart at least introduced the word “invented”, though “discovered” would have been better.  He can’t make up his mind if he takes the material world as primary:

but… our equations may just be oversimplified models that fail to capture the deep structure of reality.  Even if nature obeys universal laws, they may not be expressible as equations.

Hardly consistent with the initial confident declaration: “We are afloat on a hidden ocean of equations… at work in transport, the financial system, health and crime prevention…” !

Stewart’s book on which the feature draws, is called “Seventeen equations…” and disappoints as a carelessly written pot-boiler.  For example, he makes a pig’s ear of the Einstein equation, confusing the metric and physical terms.   He writes of Isaac Newton inventing the wave theory of light, when in fact the wave theory of Huygens and Hooke was denied by Newton.  Evidently the Newton’s iconic status has misled Stewart into identifying him with the correct view, rather than seeing the adulation of Newton as holding back the wave theory for a century and half, until Young and Fresnel broke through (Wave particle duality in the seventeenth century)

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One Response to Extremist Physics: equations rule the World

  1. Lawrence Krauss (or Michael Brooks*) believe the “laws of physics… arise from our existence in a multiverse”, making them also members of the extreme tendency. Real physicists have to say no to the multiverse and yes to our existence. The “laws of physics” are human constructs, whether written in words or mathematical symbols, available to be modified and re-interpreted.

    * “The paradox of nothing” review in New Scientist, 14 January 2012, p.46

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