At the discount bookstore or on Twitter, you can be assured that if book reads “The Tao of Whatever,” you can bet that it really discusses “The Wu of Whatever.” (See the explanation of Wu here.) There are bazillions of people who get inspired by Eastern philosophy. It offers people a different perspective on approaching questions, as it did to Robert Pirsig, author of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance who pursued the question “What is quality?” People get a smattering of Eastern ideas and wish to plug them into the Western setting, calling their thoughts the Tao of Some Damn Thing. Why not join ’em?
It’s woo for fun and profit. We can’t know really much about Eastern philosophy even after a long vacation in the Orient. If someone there is peddling philosophy to gullible Anglos visiting Asia, locals there are glad to peddle profitable and inane rubbish to the Western rubes, than talking seriously about ideas.
You don’t have to hop on a plane to be woo’ed. Let’s take a visit to some homegrown academic woo.
The ancient lore of the Wu of Physics is fascinating. Understanding the Wu of something means the realization, “Hey! Everything I know about this is wrong!” Equations are crafted and strung out like garlands; great thoughts are mobilized, clever conclusions are lined up. And experimental evidence points them out as wrong. That is Wu enlightenment, the discovery of how awesomely full-of-sh*t you really are. That’s the portal to enlightenment.
Something really happened in Physics around 1880 or so. Here is the Wu story of what happened. It is almost completely wrong, but it sounds good.
19th Century physicists were getting fat and sassy. They got all smug about Maxwell’s answering the riddle of the physics of light. Oliver Heaviside wrote out the Four Golden Equations, and that was that. All physics was wrapped up in a ball.
And then stuff started to happen.
First was Max Planck. He was hired by an electrical company in Germany to answer the entirely mundane question – what is the best way to operate a light bulb so as to produce the most light, which is its efficient purpose, out of the electricity it consumes?
He looked through a spectroscope, and noted that the light of the bulb, like the light of the sun, produces a smooth illumination curve across the wavelengths of light.
It was clear that as the power output of the bulb increased by increasing the temperature of the filament, that the peak of the light shifted from the red side of the spectrum to the blue. The increase in the amount of light is profound, and the wavelength shift is more subtle. But that shift does happen.
Therefore, blue light must be a more efficient transmitter of light energy than red light is. At least, when the power going into the filament is increased, the preferred wavelength shifts towards blue.
A simple question. Why does the light bulb bother releasing the red light at all? It is far more “inefficient” than the blue light. So, why? If light is like sound waves, one can transmit more light power by turning up the volume and ignoring the wavelength. What makes the color shift?
That question killed physics as we knew it then. If the goal is to release energy from the filament, why stop there? Why not release ultraviolet light, or x-rays and such? That’s far more efficient in carrying away energy. That is the Ultraviolet Catastrophe. You can look it up.
The collapse into confusion took decades, and couldn’t be stopped until the emergence of quantum mechanics.
This story of Planck’s Catastrophe is mostly Wu. It’s not really the way it happened then, but has been massaged. It is less truth and more excitement, than things really happened. First, Planck was no rube, but a theoretical physicist with much more insight than the story let’s on. Although Planck’s thoughts on the matter were profound, it wasn’t a particularly “eureka!” moment when he found contradiction.
Interestingly, Einstein nailed the proof that light travels in irreducible packets we call photons, with a minimum quantum of energy. The photoelectric effect, even though profound, was described by Einstein in a way that is woo-free. He could explain it to a middle-school science class. It’s that awesome.
The greatest beauty in science is when it is pure and profound.