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Friday, 3 February 2012

Insignificance

Forty odd years on from getting a degree in Maths and Physics (with Astronomy) from a decent "Red Brick" university I realise I learnt nothing. Not one creative, original thought crossed my cerebellum during my three years at that place of higher learning. I shovelled the facts in and spat them out onto the exam paper.

 I mean it's not as if I haven't read much about science in the intervening years. Didn't I comprehend any of the stuff contained in those volumes. I think not.

I can hold a conversation on the nuclear processes in the stars; possibly entertain with my knowledge of the photo - electric effect. I could, at a pinch, solve a simple first order partial differential equation. All pretty straight forward; I read it all in books.

Why now? Why now comes this realisation that it's all a sham?  - because I've been reading two books. "the music of the primes" by marcus du sautoy, and "The Trouble With Physics" by Lee Smolin. Both books are an exploration into what is reality and the relationship with our minds in mediating that reality.

I was never that good at mathematics; I just didn't get it. It was all a fuzz, so prime numbers (numbers that are only divisible by one or themselves) never troubled me. What was so special about being able to predict where the next prime would be, and why all the fuss about Fermat's Last Theorem. But now thanks to Marcus, I've discovered primes and they're fascinating.

The trouble is I just don't have the skill or ability to get any further than a sense of wonderment. But that's alright I never was too hot on the subject.

Physics is a different kettle of fish. I always loved our Physics lessons at school. The Wimshurst machine, Ohm's Law, Boyle's Law, Light and Electro-Magnetism.

Except they're just cyphers. I treated these phrases like an ancient shaman incanting a solemn oath. It's as if simply uttering the phrase "Electromagnetic"described the reality behind the phrase.

What is "Electro-magnetism"? It's been known for millennia that certain metals had a property of attracting other metals to them. Also that rubbing two pieces of cloth together can generate a spark or shock. These phenomena were seen as separate and distinct.

Then in  the 18th and 19th century, it was discovered that if you placed a piece of iron inside a coil of  wire through which you passed a current, the piece of metal became magnetised. Not only that if you got a magnet and a coil of wire and moved the magnet in and out of the coil, using a measuring instrument attached to the two ends of the coil you would measure an electric current.

Some bright spark realised that what was being seen in these two experiments were different manifestations of an underlying property. Magnetism and Electricity weren't two distinct forces, they arose from something more fundamental.

It took a further bit of creativity by Faraday and Maxwell - the former imagining forces mediated by a vector field, and the latter in realising that that electo and magnetic fields could be represented mathematically as a single  function. Stunningly out of this equation there appeared a constant which had the dimensions of length and time and a value equal to the speed of light!

At that moment the lights went on in the Heavens! Light was another manifestation of the electromagnetic field. Stunning!

That of course doesn't really answer the important question. What the hell is this thing called EM radiation? Why does it exist, how does it exist?

And so finally 40 years on I find out what has been bugging me. All the time I was studying I was content with knowing. Yet there always was this Why? question which hung in the air.

Now, at least, I'm happy to feel uncomfortable when what I read doesn't get close to answering that question. I just wish I'd woken up a few years earlier. 

7 comments:

Bunsen Burner said...

Q: Why are quantum physicists so poor at sex?
A: Because when they find the position, they can't find the momentum, and when they have the momentum, they can't find the position.

Steve said...

My trouble was I became fascinated by Lego as a child... and never really moved on from that.

Marginalia said...

This is the trouble, I try to write something deep and meaningful and what do I get. A joke that's as old as the Big Bang itself and the mutterings of a retarded child.

I give up.

Bunsen Burner said...

Don't take it too personally. We welcome meaningfulness in the here today deleted tomorrow blogosphere.

Did I tell you the one about the one legged lesbian chemist.....

Marginalia said...

Thank you BB.

The joke is still as old as the hills.

Steve said...

I think you'll find I'm very advanced for my mental age.

Marginalia said...

You're doing well. I understand that your teacher has hopes for you. Stage 2 is not beyond you apparently.