Explaining physics

Discussion in 'General Science & Technology' started by Magical Realist, Sep 24, 2016.

  1. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    Ernest Rutherford once said: "it should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid." Is this possible? Do you agree or disagree? And does the beer help?

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    Last edited: Sep 24, 2016
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  3. Kittamaru Now nearly 40 pounds lighter. Staff Member

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    That depends - what school did the barmaid go to, and what level math classes did she pass?
     
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  5. paddoboy Valued Senior Member

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    To a point, yes...to a point, no.
    The Universe is a weird and wonderful place, and while physics and our models are able to correctly predict, some of it is certainly beyond our understanding at this juncture in time.
    What is nothing? What was before the BB if the BB was the beginning of time? Why did the BB bang? Why does spacetime curve? Why does that curvature/mis-shaping exhibit what we know as gravity?
    Yet, we are able to use that gravity to take us to all the planets in the solar system, and use the other factors to enable us to paint a reasonable picture of how the solar system came to be, how our galaxy formed, why the Sun shines, and to delve into the most basic fundamentals of matter.
    To illustrate what I'm trying to say, there was a time when we were ignorant as to why some living creatures were able to fly and seemingly defy the laws of gravity...The Sun was viewed as some apparition or representation of a god, and even something as basic as believing the Earth was flat, as believing it was round meant that anyone on the other side would fall off!
    In summing, although some mysteries and aspects of physics/cosmology are at this time unexplainable, the universe is getting less weird and more understandable as science progresses.
     
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  7. paddoboy Valued Senior Member

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    And how proficient she is at pouring a long cold beer!

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  8. paddoboy Valued Senior Member

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    And from memory, wasn't it Richard Feynman that said that? or words to that effect?
     
  9. el es Registered Senior Member

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  10. el es Registered Senior Member

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    I think Rutherford also said that experiment should come before theory.
     
  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    The Second Law of Thermodynamics clearly states that temporary reversals of entropy can occur, and moreover, there is no limit on the size and duration of such a reversal. The Big Bang is a textbook-perfect example of a rather large temporary reversal of entropy.
     
  12. Yazata Valued Senior Member

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    Do I agree? Yes. Emphasis on the 'should'. It's just a definition of good teaching. Teachers need to pitch their exposition at their students' level of understanding, not their own.

    Assuming that the exposition is aimed at laypeople, I think that a good teacher needs to begin his/her exposition with ideas that the average person understands and then explain more complicated principles in terms of those principles.

    Is it possible? It may be with the simpler principles of classical physics. People have, or can easily acquire, an intuitive understanding of what the words 'force', 'mass' and 'acceleration' mean, making it sorta-possible to understand what relationships like 'F = MA' mean. Lay people can comprehend some of what's happening when one rolls ball bearings down inclined planes and perhaps the swinging of pendulums. High-school physics is mostly intuitive in this way. Various gas laws might fall into a similar category. (Deeper understanding would probably require some deeper inquiry into how these things are measured and quantified and some inquiry into vectors in some of the cases.)

    Pushing deeper introduces rates of change, which motivates calculus and one is into freshman university physics.

    But can the 'cool' stuff - quantum mechanics, relativity, particle physics, cosmology - and all of the stuff where physicists start to elbow aside the wizards and high-priests of old and pose as possessors and revealers of the secrets of the universe - be understood in the same way? I doubt it. It's just too much of a leap from intuitive lay concepts to the concepts the physicists are employing. (What's a 'Lagrangian' or an 'inner product in Hilbert space'?) One has to build up to it step by step.

    Some concepts and principles (when does a 'concept' become a 'principle' and then a 'law'?) of physics are so arcane that they can only be understood by individuals who have a suitable background the subject and its ancillaries. That's especially true when the principles are expressed in highly mathematical form. That's why aspiring physicists need to earn undergraduate degrees in physics, including lots of higher math, before they are exposed to all the current research problems stuff.

    I think that gap between what 'should' be the case and what is actually 'possible' is one of the more serious problems of the sociology of science: the fact that for 99% of the population out there, advanced physics is as much a matter of faith as the Biii-ble.

    Obviously our barmaid might be a physics student at a Bavarian university who is working to put herself through school. But unless she acquires the necessary background somewhere, most of the "scientists say" stuff in the popular press will just be revelations that she is being expected to believe on faith. Not all that different from medieval times, really. (And they liked beer too.)
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2016
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  13. dumbest man on earth Real Eyes Realize Real Lies Valued Senior Member

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    It would seem, Magical Realist, that you may possibly have your "quote" confused with another...

    1.) - The quoted phrase : "It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid." , is usually attributed to Albert Einstein : http://quoteaddicts.com/topic/barmaids-quotes/ ; http://www.quotationof.com/physics.html ; http://thinkexist.com/quotation/it_should_be_possible_to_explain_the_laws_of/145952.html

    2.) - Ernest Rutherford is often quoted as expressing similar opinions : "An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid." and "A theory that you can't explain to a bartender is probably no damn good." or "If you can't explain your physics to a barmaid, then it is probably not very good physics". : http://www.azquotes.com/quotes/topics/barmaids.html ; https://prezi.com/uw5ijr3p_vmc/ernest-rutherford/ ; http://likesuccess.com/505734 ; https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ernest_Rutherford

    So, Magical Realist, what both Albert Einstein and Ernest Rutherford would probably agree on, and also a quote that is attributed to Albert Einstein, is thus : “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.” - http://thinkexist.com/quotation/if_you_can-t_explain_it_simply-you_don-t/186838.html ...
    ...which is often mis-quoted as : "If you can't explain it to a six year old then you don't understand it yourself." - http://www.arkhus.com.au/our-ethos ; https://www.quora.com/How-correct-i...-six-year-old-you-dont-understand-it-yourself

    The Bottom Line : If, indeed, you do truly and fully understand ANY SUBJECT, including Physics and any of the Real Sciences and Mathematics, then you should be able to explain that SUBJECT satisfactorily to just about anyone, even someone at the most basic level of understanding!
     
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  14. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

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    It would all hinge on the use of relateable metaphors. The scientist would have to use glasses of beer, coasters, napkins, coins, and peanuts to illustrate the physics for the barmaid. And even then he'd be losing her multitasking attention to other things. Then he'd say, "Why don't you come to my hotel room and I'll make it all clearer to you." After which she'd demonstrate Newton's law with the back of her hand as he flies off the stool.
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2016
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  15. sideshowbob Sorry, wrong number. Valued Senior Member

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    The more you drink, the better you think your explanation is and the more the barmaid will appreciate your business.
     
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  16. Dinosaur Rational Skeptic Valued Senior Member

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    In Rutherford's era, it might have been possible: Not now.

    At least not without the equivalent of several semesters of courses.
     
  17. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

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    There's nothing special about physics here.

    Can you explain advanced economics to a barmaid? How about the intricacies of ballet technique, or the history of epic poetry? Can you explain to a barmaid how to speak Esperanto, or how to repair a car engine?

    What you're asking is whether it is possible to teach somebody something, or whether it is possible for people to learn stuff. Clearly each of those things is possible.
     
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  18. danshawen Valued Senior Member

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    That picture very closely resembles my wife's favorite Halloween costume. Her oldest sun is a PhD physicist, and her youngest is a PhD mathematician. Of course we talk physics and math around her. How could we not?

    I usually go to costume or dance parties with her as a knight in shiny armor on the occasion she wears that, but last year we won 2nd prize for dressing as a pair of matching drones, the scariest thing I could think of. No scary clowns this year, even if we need to go back to our old ones. Donald Trump would also be way too scary, and for the same reason. Too real.

    And, yes, some barmaids love talking physics. One of those in Copenhagen probably inspired Niels Bohr to smuggle his Nobel prize out of Denmark in a case of Danish beer when the Nazis occupied the country. And it worked, so raise a glass to that barmaid!
     
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2016
  19. Seattle Valued Senior Member

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    James has already given the answer IMO. I would add that someone who actually knows any subject matter should be able to explain it to anyone else. If they can't then they don't actually fully know that subject matter.

    It may take some time depending on how deep you want to go into the subject matter and depending on how quickly the "barmaid" is grasping the info but it can done and probably can be done pretty easily.

    The biggest impediment to understanding subjects that we are not familiar with are the "terms of art" meaning language that has a special and specific meaning to that subject. Once that is cleared up most people can grasp most subjects.

    A layman isn't going to know what an eigenvalue is or what the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is. Why should they? Clear up the meaning of some common terms and most people can understand most anything (to the extent than anyone can understand it).
     
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2016
  20. Yazata Valued Senior Member

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    The difference is that subjects like ballet or the history of epic poetry aren't treated as the high-road to the secrets of the universe. Ballet dancers and epic poets haven't elbowed their way to being our culture's high-priests and grand-wizards.

    If you want to know the origin or ultimate fate of the universe, ask a physicist. If you want to know the secrets of space and time, ask a physicist. If you want to know the fundamental stuff out of which everything is made and the principles that govern its transformations, ask a physicist.

    Nobody has ever suggested that the principles of dance choreography embody some wonderful method that constitutes the only acceptable foundation of human cognition whenever people are faced with a questions of fact.

    The sociological problem as I see it is that this wonderful new scientistic gnosis is something that is confined to a sacred priestly elite. To 99% of the population, it's as much a matter of faith as the Bible. They have no idea why the scientists say the things they say, however counterintuitive it is. They are just expected to believe it. (If they don't, they are damnable "deniers".) If they dare to think for themselves about sacred things like space and time and produce their own ideas about them (however amateurish those ideas might be), they are crucified (at least rhetorically) by scientism zealots. See (here).
     
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2016
  21. Seattle Valued Senior Member

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    Do you support your pharmacist, doctor, architect, electrician, etc. to "think for themselves" or would you prefer that they take advantage of the existing knowledge in their fields first?
     
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  22. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    You could say much the same about carpentry, cooking or farming. You won't get very far building a bookcase, baking a cake or growing fruit trees without availing yourself of the skill and wisdom of people who are already experts. The reason that none of these other specialties are quite as difficult to master as physics is that physics is simply more complicated.

    If you spend a year under the tutelage of a master carpenter, a popular chef or a prosperous farmer, you'll be on your way to becoming an expert, but you'll have to keep learning new things before that expertise actually becomes part of you.

    This is why it took the technologies that we regard as elementary took so long for the human race to master. For example, it's virtually impossible to build a wheel of any significant size, strength, and precision (i.e., able to roll in a straight line without constant steering corrections), if you don't already have metal blades to cut the wood precisely. This means that your community must have already discovered the technology of metallurgy, which required them, first, to learn how to build a fire hot enough to melt tin and copper ore--the first metals that were discovered because their melting points are relatively low, and when melted together they become bronze.

    For our Paleolithic ancestors ("Early Stone Age," before the discovery of agriculture), these principles that most modern people understand intuitively took literally a couple of thousand years before they got it right.
    Today, our understanding of the universe external to our own planet is roughly at the same level as our Paleolithic ancestors' understanding of tool-making and alloying metals. However, our understanding of dance choreography is far more advanced, especially with the help of our understanding of the human body. Yet dance goes back to the Paleolithic Era, or perhaps even earlier, before our distant ancestors had discovered how to create stone tools. It took thousands of years before a Balanchine or a Baryshnikov had the brainstorm to invent much more complicated movements.
    I'm beginning to wonder just how much time you personally have spent in a university. I took classes in both an elite school (Caltech) and a second-tier school for the common folk. In neither environment did I encounter professors who regarded themselves as any sort of "priestly elite." (Okay, there are assholes in every profession but they're vastly outnumbered by the humble folk who get the work done.) When they weren't teaching, they were in their labs or their offices, trying to answer questions--some that had just been asked for the first time, and others that have been thwarting solutions for a century or more.
    Don't you suppose that the reason for this might be that science is considerably more complicated than virtually any other field of study?
    No one is expected to believe something if it's counterintuitive. There is a mountain of literature for every branch of science, and indeed for individual theories--and they're available in almost every language and at every level of age, education and experience.
    The reason that the climate change deniers are damned by virtually every reasonably well-educated American (and the same in other advanced, democratic nations) is that their arguments don't withstand analysis. It's easy to see that they are aimed only at the Religious Redneck Retards. The deniers never even try to convince the rest of us, because they know damn well that their arguments are fairy tales, just like their "holy" books.
    Bullshit. This does, indeed, happen in a place like SciForums, where there aren't enough (unpaid) professional scientists to hold off the hordes of ignorance--and just plain old goofing off. But it doesn't happen in accredited universities, where there actually are plenty of scholars to take on the Religious Redneck Retards in an open forum, letting the audience ask their own questions and giving them well-explained answers.
     
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  23. Russ_Watters Not a Trump supporter... Valued Senior Member

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    Lol, "high priests and grand wizards"?, that's just silly. I don't know where you get your disdain for science, but you really shouldn't project mirror images of your extremism on others: yours is not a typical position and the inverse of your position is not typical either. Both are extremist.
    If I told you that I (a 40 year old who is in mediocre shape and has demonstrated thoroughly that he can't dance) was going to revolutionize ballet dancing, you'd rightly think I was a delusional, egotistical, arrogant, derisive idiot

    There is nothing wrong with acknowledging one's limitations: ballet dancers do something that is wholly inaccessible to me and that's ok. It doesn't mean I see them as "high priests of ballet" for me to acknowledge that. And a person who would rightly ridicule me for claiming I was about to revolutionize ballet would not be a "balletism zealot".
     

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