, ,


Things change state in the real world. They transition from one essential thing to another, departing from one essence and taking on another. When stars collapse into neutron stars, the gravitational energy overcomes the constraints of Heisenberg upon the localization of individual neutrons, allowing them to be packed like sardines into one colossal neutron ball. What it was before, had nothing to do with a neutron star; what it became was indeed a neutron star.

The University

Properly, universities are workshops for dealing with things that are incompletely understood. Understanding is a human capacity. Universities can warehouse the raw materials to allow for the progress of understanding; but understanding lives and dies with the individual. There may be a collegial group – a college, in its original meaning – which gathers ones who understand something to a somewhat advanced degree. It is their job to stray away from comfort, from certainty, and to probe around the edges of what nobody yet understands, at least in the physical sciences; and more importantly, to tug away at the illusion of certainty from those which are thought to be certain, but are not.

Max Planck caused a vast catastrophe in physics by exploring the simple question, asked by a German electricity company – what are the parameters such as voltage and current and such, to bring a light bulb to most efficiently create light? It’s a properly German question, that of minimizing waste – such as heat – in the function of a light bulb.

The catastrophe that occurred consumed all physics, even down to the fundamental certainties of Newton. What began with Planck can be bracketed against the thoughts of Paul Dirac, perhaps seventy years later. That is when the Ultraviolet Catastrophe, as it was called, stopped.

Dirac understood the great paradox inherent in quantum mechanics:

To him, the new physics was basically a formal scheme that allowed the calculation of experimental results, while it had nothing to say about ontological questions. The proper way of presenting quantum mechanics must necessarily be abstract, he wrote, for the new theory is “built up from physical concepts which cannot be explained in terms of things previously known to the student, which cannot even be explained adequately in words at all” (Dirac 1930). It was this abstract picture of quantum mechanics that Principles conveyed to its readers.

Edition Open Access

There is no smooth and easy path from the words of the problem to the methods of solution, as there is in quantum mechanics.  The mathematics does not symbolize anything – it is not attached to a clear concept, such as it is in classical mechanics, where things move about and interact with other things.

Even relativistic physics is attached to concepts in intuition.  The intelligent person without skill at the complex mathematics, such as tensor algebra, can ponder the essential concepts in general and special relativity, even if that person cannot wrestle to produce a numerical solution.

Quantum mechanics thrives on the abstract equation and its solution.  The mathematics has nothing that really distinguishes it as being inherently true, as Descartes would consider fundamental to knowledge.  It is merely a set of equations.  When one impresses a modification or mathematical demand upon the equations, they devolve results.  If these results mirror what is observed, then the equation is “correct.”  Einstein was deeply bothered by this separation between equation and reality, even though he understood it as well as any other physicist.

Dirac’s paper of 1931 to the Royal Society – I am seeking an online reference to discuss this – I’ll have to follow today’s post with a follow-up.

History of Quantum Mechanics

Quantum mechanics is properly studied as a process in history.  The equations and ideas arose in time, and were debated and analyzed by a number of brilliant people over time.  When the minds of quantum physics discovered Emmy Noether‘s study of the mathematics of symmetric transformations, quantum mechanics leaped further forward.

The Living University

The course of quantum mechanics and modern physics marked the high-water-mark of the modern university, especially its Science divisions, from which it has retreated, leaving tidelines during its ebb.

Analysis and Deconstruction.

A university engages in two sequential opposites, and continues to visit them during the cycle of education.  The first is to neatly present a simple sketch of what is to be considered, with handy anchor-points for the student to navigate into its depths.  In this portion of higher education, the rubric is that of creating a path which goes near enough to the truth, and is smooth and regular enough for students to gather the basic concepts and recite them with some degree of inherent understanding.

In quantum mechanics, this would reflect Bohr and the Copenhagen School.  It is enough to be a diligent cipher, an illiterate scribe who can faithfully copy what cannot be understood.  The dismal, automaton-like manipulation of equations is what Einstein found worrisome.  The school mirrors the sophomore – the wise fool who knows everything, but nothing.  The Copenhagen School can be considered a Sophomore’s Club.  Theoretical physics is merely a working of the equation to produce a testable hypothesis.  Dr. Sheldon Cooper, of the Big Bang Theory, gives off all the emanations of this sort of savant – an equation-whipper who can say anything there is to be said, but has a limited range of voice.

The next phase of education – the most important one, the one that has largely died out – is the transition from orderly knowledge to reality.  Sophomores in college are famous for embracing foolishness as the end-product of thought; they are fledglings.  Everything produced by didactic lecturing is absorbed without much analysis – knowledge implies that one knows the facts, the difference between a spondee and an iamb, the difference between Shakespeare and Bacon, anything that can be packaged.

The modern online university has sprung up as a result of our habit of amputating education at the didactic level.  The most wearisome and shocking aspect of all studies is the  realization that, no matter what “ISM” one has diligently memorized and incorporated, it is all a simplistic concatenation of elements which purport to describe reality; but it does not.  It only provides a bridge from where one can leap into reality.

In the study of medicine, I call this phase “teaching the unteacheable, learning the unlearnable.”  The didactic infrastructure that one has so confidently internalized, leaks.  One might debate whether or not a certain leak is significant; whether a certain academic shibboleth is slightly wrong, or terribly wrong.  In medicine, this is the process of internship and residency.

At the end of medical school, one has learned by didactic lecture and by experience what things are dangerous, and what are safe; what areas on the map have swamps and monsters, and which have clear ground and water.  In Peabody’s time, this was the period of learning, where the students could empirically discover what faith they might place in which truism, and which were to be discarded.

It was in fact certain, just before my training, that beta-blocker use was potentially harmful in the heart attack patient.  They slowed the rate and contractility of the struggling heart – how could this be beneficial?

Except that it was beneficial, and powerfully so, as discovered in research study.  Before the turn of the century, medical research was relatively independent, and free to discuss such truths as appeared to the physician-scientists.  Now it has become a tilted land, where the footprint of Big Pharma and its money is so heavy, that one can barely trust anything one reads in the literature.  Lysenko would have flourished today, and Lamarckianism advanced quickly.  No matter that they were wrong, they were popular with the leadership. Under Stalin, as now, being wrong was trivial, compared to being funded.

This is the part of the University which has almost died off.  It is troublesome, terrorist even, to go beyond the certainties of didactic truth into the wilderland of experiential reason.  Since individual humans are capable of nothing but deviation of the desired norm, individual thought is sedition.

The Universities have a comfortable underpinning of Fascism these days.  People misperceive the threat; it is not because students bay idiotically about the latest ISM that they have memorized – Trotskyism or Randism, whatever.  They are learning, and they are risible.  What is worrisome is the willingness to suppress deviation.  Lamarckianism and Lysenkoism were no threat, and even belong in reasoned academic consideration in biology.  It is the fascism that worries me.