Ways Physics and Cosmologists Can Baffle You



I dreamed that I was looking at the universe, the milky way perhaps, on a screen as large as the side of a building. In the picture the stars are in motion, moving in a way that seems remarkably predictable for an expanding cosmic landscape. There is a character standing to the left of the big screen, waiting for me. He has gray hair and looks a little bit like Colonel Sanders, but he is actually the teacher. And he is patient. He is waiting for me to ask him about the scene, but I have been avoiding it.


I have been trying to understand the basic principles of physics for a few years now, mainly because of my interest in quantum computing. But no matter how many books I read on the subject, I am still baffled by most of it. Sometimes my questions seem too big to ask, and yet my interest continues. Thankfully there are a few encouraging teachers, like Leonard Susskind, director of the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics, who say it’s perfectly reasonable to feel challenged here.

From Leonard Susskind to Everyone:

“A number of years ago I became aware of the large number of physics enthusiasts out there who have no venue to learn modern physics and cosmology. Fat advanced textbooks are not suitable to people who have no teacher to ask questions of, and the popular literature does not go deeply enough to satisfy these curious people. So I started a series of courses on modern physics at Stanford University, where I am a professor of physics. The courses are specifically aimed at people who know, or once knew, a bit of algebra and calculus, but are more or less beginners.”

The response was overwhelming and it was suggested that Stanford put them up on the internet. You can find them at: http://www.learnoutloud.com/Catalog/Science/Physics/Modern-Theoretical-Physics/23022

Susskind On Why Physics Is So Hard

Susskind says that with physics, you have to go through the initiation rights of learning mathematics, which is why physics is so hard for the general public.

“Look, the process of modern physics has been very much the process of physicists rewiring their brains with abstract mathematics. Nobody, including me or anybody else, can visualize and see four dimensions in their head. But it’s very easy to add to x, y, and z, another letter of the alphabet and simply do with the four letters what you used to do with the three letters.

So you make an abstract mathematical visualization that you can’t see in your head, but through the process of rewiring you learn new ways to think about things. Well, I can’t use that when I talk to people who are not mathematically trained, so you use analogies, metaphors. So it is effective, but always at some level it is wrong. It doesn’t capture everything correctly.”

For more, watch The Cosmic Landscape: Leonard Susskind at the Commonwealth Club of California.


— DJ

Night and Day is an online journal that contrasts my dreams with my daytime activities. I refer to these posts as episodes because I only recall my dreams sporadically, and because they are at best loosely connected to my days.


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