Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sympathetic Vibrations!

Our book today is K.C. Cole's invigorating 1984 book Sympathetic Vibrations: Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life, and reading it will make you wish it had been assigned to you in school – and that you'd been lucky enough to have Cole as a teacher. Her book investigates the many interlinked worlds that underlie the modern understanding of physics – everything from waves and particles to styles of measurements to quantum mechanics is covered here, all of it done in a lively, colloquial style that loses none of its authority for being approachable. And all of it abides by her underpinning idea that “science is inseparable from philosophy” - an assertion I'd ordinarily take issue with, except that Cole makes a really strong case, and it's so enjoyable to watch her do it.

I'm a sucker for this kind of popular science volume specifically because I tend not to believe that science and philosophy have anything meaningful to do with each other. Philosophy, after all, deals in hard, tangible realities – who is free, who is happy, and why, stuff like that – whereas science deals almost exclusively with unobservable matters of faith. Scientists tell you that the sun doesn't, in fact, revolve around Earth – and you believe them even though your own eyes tell you every day that it does. Scientists tell you that their world is bounded on all sides by immutable laws, unthinking principles that guarantee uniformity. And yet, every single day each and every one of us tells a computer/cash register/ATM/parking meter to do something utterly routine – tells it in exactly the same manner we've told it thousands of times before – and had it simply refuse to work. We laugh and soften the moment with comments like “Oh, it's feeling cranky,” but the truth is, nobody's ever seen anything even remotely resembling an immutable law connected with any kind of technology – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and nobody can say why. A philosopher caught in that kind of ignorance would be drummed out of the Academy.

And that's precisely why I'm a sucker for Cole's kind of book: because underneath the marketing facade of popularizing science, these types of books are really simple Middle Ages miracle plays with updated vocabulary. Their purpose isn't really to simplify the workings of advanced science to the point where the non-specialist layman can grasp them (although Cole is very, very good at such reductions, making them completely painless) – it's to reconcile readers to the dark, supernatural, utterly unpredictable forces all around them every day.

Cole does this in an appealingly old-fashioned way: she resurrects the old viewpoint in which the world is just too terrifying to be fully comprehended, and she does it in language that, with a few minor tweaks here or there, would have sat quite well with Cotton Mather:
The abstractions of science are stereotypes – as two-dimensional and as potentially misleading as everyday stereotypes. And yet they are as necessary to the progress of understanding as filtering is to the process of perception. Science would be impossible without them – if only because the real world of nature is much too complicated to deal with in its natural form. Abstractions are a way to distill the essence from an otherwise unfathomable situation … Raw reality is much too rich even to consider most of the time – too various, too exceptional, to many-hued.

This is a neat dodge, since it excuses her ahead of time for what she's going to do, which is talk about the universe and everything in it in deistic and animist terms. As you can tell from the above rationalization, she's going to maintain that the reason why she talks about things this way is because the full complexity of their real natures won't allow anything else. The real reason – because they actually are deistic and animist – will be silently glided over, lest it upset any typically narrow-minded and reactionary atheists in the audience.

Of course, that isn't all she does! Her book is marvellous precisely because she's such good company, diving right into her explanations and clarifications with the gusto of a born teacher, as when, in her signpost chapter on harmonics, she talks about the concept of resonance:
The power of resonance comes literally from being in the right place at the right time. For it to work, there has to be a harmony between what you're doing and the way something (or someone) wants to go. The almost eerie purity of laser light comes from the fact that all the atoms in the excited gas are posed just so that a gentle nudge of energy will cause them to give off light in patterns exactly aligned with each other … Resonance, in other words, allows a lot of little pushes in the right place to add up to big results. Particle accelerators use this principle of “a well-time kick in the pants,” as one physicist put it, to nudge electrons and protons almost to the speed of light.

(It doesn't take her long to get from 'right place at right time' to the hula hoop – this was 1984, after all, practically the '70s – but such references are never just gimmicks with her, so you forgive it)

But ultimately, she's interested in the same thing all ecclesiastical writers are: the role of order in the visible world. In deference to the current mind frame, she refers to 'evil' as 'entropy' and quantifies 'good' right out of the picture, but the investigations are nonetheless familiar and most certainly ongoing:
entropy wins not because order is impossible, but because there are always so many more paths toward disorder than toward order. There are so many more different ways to do a sloppy job than a good one, so many more ways to make a mess than to clean it up. If I put a baby in front of a typewriter, the odds are roughly one in forty-three that she will type the letter a. There is less than a chance in a million, however, that she could consecutively strike the letters that would spell out Shakespeare. And the chance is so infinitesimal that she would type the complete works of Shakespeare that we call it impossible.

I always end up recommending books like Sympathetic Vibrations (and I do, most heartily, recommend Sympathetic Vibrations) using some variation on the refrain of, “if this book could make a scientific dummy like me understand its basic concepts – without doing damage to those concepts – then it's well worth the time of every other scientific dummy out there, and probably the attention of better-informed people too.” This also is comforting, since it implies a spectrum, and those are always reassuring. Sure beats “no man knows whence it comes or wither it goes,” so I'll stick with it this time too.


JC said...

lovely! So far I treat most science writing the way I treat the idea of finally getting some bloodwork done to be checked for diabetes ... eh, better not to know .... but this one sounds so painless, I might just keep an eye out for it.

Now, where'd I put that doughnut ...

GW said...

"science deals almost exclusively with unobservable matters of faith." Art thou mad? Ever look through a telescope? And you demonstrate this by ignoring the readily observable behavior of natural phenomena in favor of the mystery of technology - something that you know you have more difficulty with than anyone on the planet? Grrrr, I'll never fix your computer again!

Steve Donoghue said...

I have indeed looked through a telescope; we all did, back in high school astronomy class. My 'partner' and I were assigned to find and measure the Crab Nebula. Using your precious telescope and the coordinates given to us by our instructor, we found ... nothing. Nothing at all. We double-checked the instrument and double-checked the coordinates - still nothing. When our instructor came around to us, we dolefully reported that the Crab Nebula was missing. His face tightened, and he triple-checked our telescope and our coordinates. Then he stood up, looked up at the night sky, and said, "Well, boys, you're right: the Crab Nebula is gone. Damn shame. It was very, very pretty."

I haven't checked to see if the nebula ever returned, but it wasn't there that night. So much for your 'natural phenomena.'

GW said...

You know those white, puffy things getting in the way were clouds, right?

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