Where Is the Truth in Our Romance of Popular Physics?

by Sean Miller

11 January 2016

If all the truth of physics is in the math, what kind of storytelling are we lay persons getting when we read popular accounts of physics that are completely stripped of it?

The mainstream media offers up a steady stream of physics news. Most recently, a slew of articles have commemorated the centennial of the landmark publication of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. A few months before that, an innovative experiment in the Netherlands made headlines by all but confirming what Einstein had resisted for so many years: that among subatomic particles, “spooky action at a distance” is real. A few months before that, we had moving eulogies to Stephen Hawking’s muse, Jacob Bekenstein, who first proposed—what was considered back in 1972—the outrageous notion that black holes emit radiation, and therefore, strictly speaking, are not black.

As consumers of physics, much of our diet in news of the cosmically weird arrives to us compliments of quantum theory. In addition to “spooky action at a distance”, or quantum entanglement, the hunt for traces of neutrinos have tickled the public consciousness of late. Harper’s recently published a long-form essay on subterranean neutrino detection experiments. The awarding of the 2013 Nobel prize in physics to Peter Higgs for his positing of the elusive Higgs boson garnered much press. This was due, in large part, to the fact that the Higgs boson was one of the few remaining unsolved puzzles of the Standard Model of Quantum Theory. It also happens to play a starring role in Alan Guth’s theory of cosmic inflation.

When we tire of the thought experiments of theoretical physics, there’s always what’s going on at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC recently ramped up its energy output from 7TeV to 13TeV. This is an upgrade that promises a whole new round of news from the ultra-microscopically remote at which to marvel.

When we grow indifferent to subatomic scales, there’s always astrophysics. In addition to general relativity, which contorts the mind as much as it warps spacetime, we can gorge ourselves on the ongoing profusion of reports of newly discovered exoplanets in far flung locales. When we tire of speculating on the existence of intelligent life in the universe (besides our clever selves), there’s the fallback of wrapping our heads around what came before the Big Bang, the subject of yet another essay in Harper’s this month.

Surely, part of what captures our curiosity, as consumers of physics, is its poetry. For one, physicists seem to take an almost perverse delight in naming their theoretical objects with the utmost caprice. Black holes, braneworlds, wormholes, multiple dimensions of spacetime, and Mexican hats. Tears in the fabric of spacetime, tachyons, gluons, muons, and quarks. It’s a veritable cornucopia of weird.

Journalistic accounts of advances in high energy physics compete with a busy publication schedule of books dedicated to educating the masses on the work going on in laboratories and universities around the globe. The year 2015 featured titles like Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, Spooky Action at a Distance by George Musser, and Unstoppable the latest cross-branded opus from the poster boy du jour of scientism, Bill Nye.

What we’re submitting to when we read these articles and books is a genre unto itself, called, aptly enough, popular physics. It’s physics made “accessible” to a non-specialist audience. Accessibility is an idea sacred to the physicists and journalists who labor to produce these works. It means stripping away the arcana of the technical discourse of physics, yet retaining the “spirit” of its insights into the nature of the universe.

However, a fundamental paradox lurks within these adaptations of the accessible from the technical, one that threatens to make their transubstantiations nonsensical.

Once upon a time, physics was the redoubt of Enlightened gentlemen of leisure, competent in all its branches of inquiry. Since roughly the mid-19th century, though, physics has become a highly specialized, and as a consequence, professionalized field, with a growing panoply of sub-disciplines. These sub-disciplines are largely autonomous: they each require their own training; they each follow their own norms of practice and; they all police their disciplinary boundaries. Outside of a given sub-discipline, say, loop quantum gravity, all others fail to qualify as experts. Certainly, those in overlapping fields can claim some competence in assessing the veracity of a neighboring sub-discipline’s assertions, but even those educated outsiders are just that, outsiders.

Specialization in the field comes at a cost. One consequence is that practitioners make a distinction between those who have authority in the field and those who do not. In public, physicists tout the efficacy of merit within their respective fields. The best ideas, those that hew most closely to the true nature of the universe, are the ones that triumph. Hypotheses are posited, tested and, only by rigorous consensus, promoted to the status of theory. Beyond the ramparts of the discipline, when physicists tell us, the lay audience, of their work and its fruits, they speak from a position of authority. Their truth claims, however rational sounding, are, for us, a form of received knowledge taken on faith.

Among their brethren, physicists idealize themselves as citizens of an unruly democracy. I say “idealize” because, as in any institutional setting, the ideal is rarely ever realized in full. Often, the all-too-familiar bureaucratic hierarchies impinge, the usual hindrances to meritocracy hold sway. When facing the public, however, they become, in effect, a unified front of high priests whose sacred duty is to reveal the mysteries of the universe. As Hawking concludes in A Brief History of Time:

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.

The paradox at the heart of popular physics, framed by a social milieu where the discoveries of physics arrive to us, in spite of Hawking’s tokenistic deferral to the democratic spirit, “from on high”, hinges on a crucial elision. In theoretical physics, truth claims are exclusively mathematical arguments corroborated by experimental evidence.

Why have physicists come to rely so absolutely on math? To put it bluntly, because of its precision. No one is capable of measuring the magnetic moment of the electron—to the power of ten to negative 26—with a metaphor. One by-product, though, of mathematical formalization for the sake of precision is obscurity. In practice, this means years of rigorous training just to enter the discipline. It also means that the practice becomes highly exclusionary. Not just anyone can contribute to the ongoing conversation. So hyper-specialization engenders an impasse between producers of truth claims and the grateful consumers of those claims. We non-members of the profession are left with the comforts of physics popularizations.

Despite its lip-service to accessibility, popular physics, taken as a whole, tends only to exacerbate the divide. A famous bit of apocrypha concerning Hawking’s magnum opus of popular physics, A Brief History of Time, illustrates the point. As the publication deadline approached, his editor requested that he remove the formulas Hawking had felt were necessary to legitimize his account. The editor is reputed to have quipped that the inclusion of each formula in the book would halve sales. The implied moral: pointy-headed scientists, even those of an exulted stature such as Hawking, are well advised to pander to their audiences’ acute aversion to math.

On the one hand, a quick survey of popular physics confirms that mathematics plays a marginal, if non-existent, role in their narratives of discovery. On the other hand, physicists doing physics insist that the truth content of their claims must be expressed through mathematics. If all the truth of physics is in the math, exactly what are we getting when we read accounts of physics stripped completely of it?

We’re getting a certain form of storytelling, a genre in its own right. This genre, as, again, any brief survey of its exemplars will demonstrate, has its own conventions. These are conventions that are, more often than not, rigidly observed. A brief example is in order.

The other day I opened the latest edition of my alma mater’s alumni magazine to the following article: “Theory center opens in renovated Pupin Hall”. The very first sentence reads, “string theorists, supersymmetry sleuths, and dark-matter detectives now have a modern facility in which to pursue their explorations of the universe’s deepest mysteries.” Even the writer of a building renovation announcement feels compelled to couch a reference to physics in the most florid of terms.

Open almost any piece of popular physics and you’ll invariably find the same clichés—rote invocations of detectives, explorers, intrepid solvers of the “deepest” mysteries. The eternal verities are buried deep. But, fear not, they’ll soon be flushed out and rendered transparent.

On the surface, we lay readers of popular physics are getting accessible accounts of scientific discoveries. Beneath the surface, though, we’re being initiated into the gospel of a specific worldview. The question then becomes: what kind of worldview are these high priests of theoretical physics selling us?

The language of popular physics is characteristically grandiose. It’s meant to inspire awe. Here’s a not-atypical example from Brian Greene’s bestseller, The Elegant Universe: “String theory has the potential to show that all of the wondrous happenings of the universe—from the frantic dance of subatomic quarks to stately waltz of orbiting binary stars, from the primordial fireball of the big bang to the majestic swirl of heavenly galaxies—are reflections of one grand physical principle, one master equation.”

Physics popularizers such as Greene and Hawking strive to conjure the universe as an appealing blend of the familiar yet bizarre. To accomplish this, they reach for images from the near, then refashion them to represent the far off. But this rhetorical strategy is more than just colorful language. What we readers are getting when we read these stories is, in effect, a romance of physics.

By this, I don’t mean a tremulous Romantic rapprochement with the sublime. I’m referring to an older literary genre, heroic romance. The Romantic worldview longs to preserve the enduring mysteries of the universe. It genuflects before the fearsome power of nature, its ultimate inscrutability. In contrast, heroic romance exults the hero’s role in the equation that binds the human to the natural order. The physicist as hero ventures out to encounter then tame the unknown through the formal rigor of mathematical argumentation. In this sense, the romance of physics is a romance of power, of the human capacity to harness nature to its will. As a genre, popular physics is much less the Kubla Khan of Samuel Coleridge and much more Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.

Even the driest of expository prose within the covers of a venerable journal like Scientific American betrays this fervid conviction that the universe will ultimately yield all its mysteries to the probing light of science. In my research, I’ve found that the technical discourse of theoretical physics is laced—granted, in more muted form—with a comparable narrative logic. When physicists write to each other in order to make truth claims through mathematical argument about the nature of the universe, they’re telling a story. That story follows its own set of conventions. In effect, their proxies, highly abstracted agents, interact with theoretical objects at remote scales. This imaginary—of abstract agents interacting with theoretical objects—lends the mathematical arguments a deeper meaning, a social context only acknowledged obliquely.

Both imagined agents and their objects of interest—presented through the exposition that circumscribes the mathematical arguments—are not just arbitrary, as a whimsical term like “quark” would make it seem. They connect the human scale to the remote. They allow physicists to imagine themselves into a world that they are claiming is real, in order to manipulate, through an imagined exercise in grappling, with objects at scales hitherto inaccessible to the body.

These imaginaries limit theoretical possibilities. Physicists can only dispute as factual that which they can imagine. The story that inevitably unfolds, according to the dictates of the genre, is the following: a theorist-hero ventures out into a remote, unknown space—a wilderness, for example, on the scale of the atomic nucleus or even further “down”, the Planck scale. There’s an encounter with the “creatures” they find there, autonomous objects with their own agency, such as quarks or superstrings, that inhabit that wilderness. Those objects are then tamed through a demarcation by mathematical argument. An economy of romance pervades this kind of writing, this kind of imagining. It only stands to reason, then, that in making these stories of encounter accessible through popularization, the romance becomes all the more explicit, divorced as it is, from the strictures of math.

Given that physicists generally romanticize their encounters with the universe—the doing of physics—as a matter of professional recourse, what price do we, the lay audience, pay when we consume popular physics as the offspring of this romanticization?

A leader in the field of loop quantum gravity, Carlo Rovelli, is coming out with a highly anticipated work of popular physics this coming Spring, entitled, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. The advance jacket copy serves to prime prospective readers on what they can expect from the book, and conversely, what is expected of them as dutiful consumers of its revelations. Nature declares that the “metaphors are vivid, the visions dramatic.” The New Statement gushes that “this is physics as romantic poetry, and, by God, it’s beguiling.” For Philip Pullman, “Rovelli manages to convey the mystery of very large things and very small things with brilliant effect.” Alan Alda breathlessly informs us that “Rovelli’s words take us on a great adventure as the human mind reaches out to understand the universe.” Granted the last word, physicist Lee Smolin intones that the book “reminds us that the roots of science are curiosity and wonder”.

Perhaps the writing that physicists do, infused as it is with romance, springs from an innocent enough impulse, the impulse to know through story. Sociologists of science have observed that much of the trafficking among physicists in romance reduces to three overlapping agendas: the desire for publicity; as a recruiting tool; and as a means of tribal indoctrination. Undoubtedly, their peculiar brand of romance also stems from the Enlightenment imperative to know and control. It becomes, in its own sublimated way, a pretext and justification for a mindset of conquest. Physicists, and we who consume this worldview second-hand, long to not only discover the universe, but to cup it in our hands.

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