David Bouchier: Fear Of Physics

Oct 23, 2017

My ignorance about science is virtually complete. We had a tiny amount of science education at school: a little simplified physics and a little more or less unintelligible chemistry – literally unintelligible because it was taught by a Scotsman whose accent none of us could understand. I never learned anything more.

This scientific illiteracy has troubled me ever since. The more our world is built on and by science, the less I seem to understand about it. So recently I decided to make an effort and enrolled in a course at the university specifically designed to enlighten backward senior citizens like me. It was on quantum mechanics. I should have chosen something easier, like knitting. Quantum theory, for a scientific beginner, is like trying to learn orchestral conducting without first learning to read music. The two early class sessions were deeply confusing, but also intriguing. I have always lived in a Newtonian world where apples fall on your head for perfectly straightforward reasons, and the speed of light is measured by how long it takes to get to the light switch. But this was, in every sense, a different universe. Most of us can cope with a graph or a bar chart, or a bar bill, but show us a simple equation demonstrating (for example) the Lorentz transformation and the brain freezes. It’s like a restaurant menu in a foreign language, we would rather just settle for a cheese sandwich.

But my curiosity was piqued, and I might have continued with my scientific education until I had become another Einstein. What profound answers to the secrets of the universe I could have come up with if only I knew what the questions were. But an unfortunate conflict of schedules cut my scientific education short before it had really started. For the first time in my life I became a college dropout long before the secrets of the universe had been revealed to me.

We all have our limitations. Dr. Lawrence J. Peter named the problem in 1969 when he coined the phrase “level of incompetence.” All of us reach our level of incompetence in various things and abandon them one after another. I have given up on many things in my lifetime: the classical guitar, French grammar, and James Joyce’s Ulysses among others.

But giving up on science – on the whole idea of science – almost amounts to giving up on rational thought. That’s why the bitterly anti-scientific mood in Washington is so disturbing. It’s not just fear of physics but fear of all the sciences, especially the ones that bring unwelcome news. Scientific answers are out, emotionally satisfying and profitable answers are in. 

Or, perhaps, I am misreading the evidence. The tiny amount I learned about quantum mechanics suggested that, underneath the apparently sensible Newtonian universe lies a region of indeterminacy and chaos, where nothing works the way we think it should. So, far from being scientifically ignorant, our leaders may be on the cutting edge of new knowledge. They have decided that not only does the universe not make any sense, but that it shouldn’t make sense. The uncertainty principle, quite literally, rules.

Copyright: David Bouchier