Why I am no longer a physicist, or,
one person’s perspective on the relation of humanities to science in our era
I am often asked how I came to make the transition from physics to classics. As background, in the late 1970s the faculty appointment that I had had in physics came to an end. (The details need not concern us here.) At that time I had two principal research interests, one in the commonly pursued area of applying advanced mathematical systems to elementary particles, and the other in an area not common among physicists (though extant), the history of science. Given that I was determined to continue a scholarly life, in principle I had the choice of pursuing the one or the other or both. But in fact I abandoned the theoretical physics project. My pursuit of it had largely been for the purpose of forestalling criticism of my spending time on humanities and on community affairs, and with the end of my appointment I no longer had any appreciable incentive for it. Indeed, any attraction it had for me was obviated because I had come to believe that the discipline of physics was inherently problematic.
I had originally
become interested in history of science as an undergraduate physics
major. (This interest was sparked by the late T. S. Kuhn, whose
course I was able to take when he was visiting at
But of course the
real point in the present context, and what I will attempt to explain here
because I believe much of it was of general interest and remains so today, is
the alienation from the profession in which I had been trained. It had three
aspects, which were respectively political, pedagogical, and epistemological in
nature. As to the political, I will only say here that I came to believe that
the profession was an integral part of a political-economic-social system, the
As to pedagogy, many
will agree that the basic scientific education of the populace today in the
One might well doubt that today’s physics profession itself is to blame for this situation, and indeed it is perhaps understandable that the discipline along with others has retreated into the proverbial ivory tower, and has confined the part of its educational role that goes beyond training successors in its field to the enlightenment of those with a modicum of intellectual background. This has been carried out by such means as undergraduate education in the Universities and writing articles for publications on the order of Scientific American.
One would think this an honorable enterprise, but the effort has succeeded no more than have the primary and secondary schools in the basics, in my opinion because it has not been pursued really seriously. When I taught physics to general undergraduate students I found that the budgetary priority for this enterprise was low in comparison with what went into training successors; that almost all the students in such courses were there because of requirements for their majors, so that they amounted to captive audiences; and, most importantly, that there was little pedagogical tradition that would go beyond teaching how to calculate the results of mathematical equations, which one could build upon so as to inculcate a modicum of actual understanding of the physical processes expressed by these equations. Moreover, I found that my concerns in this area were little shared by my colleagues.
As for extra-curricular public education, at least through the early 1980s (I have only glanced at the situation sporadically since then) what physicists with access to the media have carried out is a mixture of ex cathedra pronouncements of the presumed workings of the world with failed attempts to cast these workings in terms understandable by ordinary people. That is to say, as to the first component, when addressing educated people with whom they have some chance of communication, physicists speak of “our” knowledge of the universe as if this knowledge were the property of humankind, in spite of the circumstance that only a tiny fraction of humankind has any inkling of it. Of course they speak this way because this “we” is actually royal in character, an expression of authority. You are to take heed when you hear that “we” have discovered the quark because the speaker represents what one 1970s New Left thinker called an icon of a culture of expertise. You are not supposed to understand what he (there is essentially no “she”) is talking about; you are just supposed to believe it. And of course you cannot understand it, in the sense of relating the terms of the discourse to matters with which you are familiar, because these terms are not devised with you as an audience in mind.
And then on the less common occasions when physicists do attempt to relate their subject to familiar ideas, they inevitably end in purveying false images. The classic example is the idea of the atom as consisting of electrons, visualized as spherical objects with defined boundaries, going around a nucleus, like planets go around the sun. In fact, as has now been known for a long time, electrons are in no way objects with defined boundaries. (Rather, they are something like diffuse packets of energy oscillating in the region of space corresponding to the atom.)
In short, the physicists cannot bring themselves to write accurately in Scientific American, or to speak accurately when interviewed by the Tuesday science page of the New York Times, whether because thinking of ways to do so is not a priority for them, or because their community is so insular that its experience affords no basis for such communication, or because they believe that a crude exposition will suffice to keep the public happy and thus ensure continuation of funding for their research.
So the pedagogy, and as to epistemology, at the time of my separation I had come to believe that there was a reason why the physicists could not explain what they were about. Namely, neither did they understand it themselves. To be sure, they acted and still act as if they do. (Granted, they sometimes offer the proviso that “of course today’s theories may be altered by tomorrow’s.” But this statement is an empty abstraction, issued in much the same manner as astronomers telling us that eventually the sun will go cold: it has no relevance to the here and now.) The sycophantic science pages of the Times and the Washington Post implicitly assure us that they do. But can it really be said that the discourse of physicists refers to a world that approaches the world we live in, in a way that an advanced and unprejudiced visitor from, say, Alpha Centauri, could agree had meaningful content?
A parable. During the course of my humanities work I have had occasion to look briefly at the ancient Indian Brāhmana texts. In particular, the agnihotra or sacred fire ritual involved making offerings to the fire god at sunrise, an activity which seems to have been construed as the priests giving assistance to the sunrise. The texts contain intricate debates as to the exact proportions of the ritual elements, so that the matter was pursued with care. The writers would have been incredulous if a time-traveler from our era had told them that their machinations had no more to do with the sunrise than the proverbial debate over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And of course no one from their own society was in a position to criticize their belief system in terms they could appreciate since it was an esoteric body of knowledge. (In large measure the Upanishad literature arose as a rebellion against it, although that is another story.)
I came to suspect that elementary particle physics might be locked into a similar trap, as follows. When I first got involved in the field everyone agreed that an elementary particle was, among other things, something whose track you could see in a variety of devices if it were electrically charged (see the spark chamber discussion on this site). Or if it were electrically neutral, you could sometimes infer it from a gap between such tracks made by charged examples. (That is, the inference is that the neutral particle arose by being produced by the charged particles at one end of the gap, and then decayed into the charged particles at the other.) It all seemed very obvious and believable.
In passing, in that context no less a seemingly abstruse body of thought than Einstein’s special relativity theory appeared to be borne out as correct in a clear fashion, and on a daily basis. The theory predicts a “time-dilation” effect, whereby clocks moving with speeds approaching that of light appear to a stationary observer to be running slow, no matter what type of clock is involved. Most of the elementary particles are unstable, with a half-life characteristic of the type of particle. That is, statistically speaking about half of them have disappeared (to produce other particles) when that amount of time has elapsed after their creation. Thus a collection of such particles functions as a clock, which is accurate to the extent that their number is large enough for statistical fluctuations to iron themselves out. Now when you produce a globule with a large number of such objects of a given type at one of the national laboratories, and make them travel at a high velocity, you in fact find that when measured by time in the laboratory it takes longer for half of the objects to decay than the half-life characteristic of that type. Indeed, the discrepancy is by a quantitative amount which is precisely what is calculated from the algebraic formula Einstein gave for the size of the effect. How could anything be more obviously related to the real world?
But then the definition of an elementary particle changed. It was proposed that certain esoteric phenomena that had previously been called “resonances” also qualified as elementary particles, albeit of species whose half-life was so short that they did not live long enough to make tracks in one of the standard devices. The existence of a given example had to be inferred from observations on the tracks of particles which could be hypothesized as having been produced by it at the end of its short life. The reason for the proposal to elevate these phenomena to the status of elementary particles was that they fit into certain theoretical schemes in much the same way as did the longer-lived particles. (To be precise, these theoretical schemes identified the particles with the branch of advanced mathematics known as “group theory.” It was proposed, namely, that the various species of one important set of elementary particles constituted the respective members of a “representation” of a certain specific mathematical “group.” This group has certain properties, just as the set of positive integers 1, 2, 3, etc., has certain properties; Euclidean geometry has certain properties; and so on. So the physicists said that the mutual relations of the given set of elementary particles were determined by the properties of the specific group, much as the tendency of objects in space to move in straight lines is determined by the properties of Euclidean geometry.)
Of course science has made strides on the basis of unseen phenomena in the past. (In particular, one can now observe the actual contours of the larger molecules with an electron microscope, something unimaginable when the concept of “molecule” was first proposed.) The correlation of phenomena previously thought distinct, such as the resonances and longer lived particles in this case, certainly has precedent as well. (Think of Copernican astronomy’s realization that the earth is just another planet.)
But I began to suspect the new order of things when I realized that physicists were distorting the history of the subject, and in a way which artificially enhanced the significance of theory as compared with observation. As a good example, in the 1950s an example of an elementary particle of a new type was possibly detected in the natural, “cosmic” radiation coming to the earth. I say “possibly” because, in addition to other uncertainties noted at the time by the physicists who reported the event, the observation was made using the most primitive of the devices that detect electrically charged particles by means of the tracks they leave, a technique called “nuclear emulsion.” (This technique utilized a stack of plates of the same type of material as is used to make photographic negatives -- or was so used before the arrival of the digital camera. Grains of the material were produced around ion pairs made by charged particles traversing the device, and could be fixed by a process similar to that used in developing photographic negatives.) The technique was notorious for the difficulty in analyzing its data and for its unreliability. Yet for all that, when theoretical physicists were positing schemes around 1960 to collect the known types of elementary particles into symmetric patterns, some of these schemes in fact included the nuclear emulsion candidate, considered seriously if only for the sake of argument. (I know this especially because as a graduate student I happened to report on the state of these schemes at a seminar held at the time.)
Then a few years later, the first actually definite example of the particle in question was reported, having been observed when created at one of the national laboratories. In a footnote the observers duly acknowledged the possibility that the nuclear emulsion event had also been an example. That footnote notwithstanding, the new event was promptly touted as a case of something being “discovered” after it was first “predicted” by theory, forgetting the nuclear emulsion candidate. (That version of events found its way into textbooks, and was still in them when I checked a few years ago, long after the times of which I speak.) When pressed, physicists would say that the nuclear emulsion event was not definite, and so could not be judged to precede the theory. Yet as a matter of chronicling events, theoreticians did take the “indefinite” object to be something of interest as I have said, and did so before the more definite object was observed. (And we were all raised to believe that, while history cannot be reduced to a chronicle of events, neither can it contradict this chronicle.) Thus, although generations of students have been taught that theoretical physicists in this case posited the particular particle through their imaginative, inspired, and (especially) isolated conceptualizing, whereupon their dutiful (read: plodding) experimental colleagues went to work and found the thing, this is not so. But the received version of the history certainly bears out the relation between theory and experiment as my former colleagues understand it.
Enter the quark. (The term was acknowledged at the time to have been taken from the cries of seagulls in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and not from his more widely known Ulysses as one physics textbook later put the matter.) The endpoint of the theoretical considerations of the time was to posit that except for the electron, the photon which makes up visible light and other electromagnetic waves, and certain related objects, all the elementary particles including the formerly-termed resonances were composites of more basic entities, called “aces” or “quarks,” of which the latter designation caught on.
To be sure, there was something of a problem. People looked for free quarks and did not find them. But not to worry, the picture was modified by a “quark-containment” mechanism: the theory of quantum chromodynamics. Indeed, this theory has nice properties from a theoretical standpoint. (It is what is called “renormalizable,” whereas a number of alternative theories one might conceivably posit are not.) Most importantly, it does the job: it predicts that the quarks, while existent, could never emerge as something observable in any normal manner. Only certain new systems that contain them could be observed. Indeed, eventually these were. (Here I am aware that in the 1990s, what was touted in media such as the Times as having been “discovered,” or some such term, was the quarks themselves. However, some works written for experts in the 2000s do verify that the objects that were actually observed on those occasions, according to current criteria as to what constituted observation, were in fact the more gross systems that theoretically contained the quarks.) That is to say, theory had successfully predicted observation. QED.
It is all very nice from the perspective of the physicist, but for everyone else it has gotten so far away from what is palpable that one must ask the following. Could the advanced visitor from Alpha Centauri recognize elementary particle physics today as correlating a given number of identifiable observed phenomena with a given number of identifiable mental hypotheses? Could he or she then even formulate the question of whether or not the relation of these given numbers was reasonable, that is, if the physicists have truly explained the world in a satisfactory way? Or to put it more bluntly, would it be agreed that what elementary particle physicists call “science” is really science?
Why humanities, then? In the first place it is natural to ask if we terrestrial humans ourselves can answer these questions or at least formulate them. If so, presumably something like “philosophy of science” would be involved. I am currently out of touch with the actual discipline of philosophy of science, but at the time of my separation from physics it seemed to confine itself to investigations on the order of clarifying what “observation” constitutes which treated the entity synchronically. That might not help, since in practice what physicists themselves meant by the concept seemed to change over the period of time of my association with them. But perhaps this approach could change. (Indeed, it may well be that what is needed is to eschew the position that elementary particle “physics” is actually a species of the discipline that was practiced in the 17th and 18th centuries. That view is propagated by the physicists themselves, but, as I have suggested above, they do not seem to understand their history.)
To be sure, in recent years the humanities, or if you prefer the social sciences, have indeed studied the belief systems of scientists from a different angle than asking how cogent they are. This is the movement known as “sociology of science.” Philosophers of science have a certain reluctance to second-guess the scientists, and so do the sociologists of science. Thus their guiding principle is not to ask whether or not scientific theories are actually related to a posited real world, but to set that question aside, and to focus instead on the possibility that these theories constitute a social construction whether they are true or not. That is to say, one asks if quarks and the like are as much a product of the human mind as are gender roles, the criterion of race, and (most recently discussed) the dichotomy between domestic and wild animals. One asks if it is a product whose occasion one can at least hope to understand from examination of its socio-economic-cultural-historical context.
I do not know whether
or not this movement as constituted is sound. In passing, I feel sure that the
functioning of artificial satellites and of the probes to and upon Mars, whose
pinpoint accuracy is calculable from a combination of
But at the very least the sociologists of science can offer an object lesson, given the defensive reaction they have provoked beginning in the 1990s. There was namely a “good cop, bad cop” response by the scientists. On the one hand, in such public statements as they have made on the movement the prestigious elementary particle physicists (who tend to be politically liberal) have confined themselves to pooh-poohing its results as “obviously” faulty, since “of course” there is progress in science. Perhaps they also whisper more ad hominem arguments in their corridors. (One recalls the old refrain: “people do history of science because they can’t do physics.”) On the other, some solid-state physicists, chemists, etc., (who tend more to the political right) have lobbied to cut off funding to the supposed miscreants. In either case the scientists deny the academic respectability of the field, as if it were less worthy than, say, home economics.
All this came to a head in 1996 in an episode where a certain physicist, a sort of intermediate cop, published an article in a humanities journal. This piece, entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” dropped the names both of several physics theories and of several studies of them by humanities/social sciences people, and appeared to give something approaching a deconstruction of something. Qua humanities article it seemed unfocussed, brought in too many issues to be treated reasonably in a single article of journal proportions, and in the last analysis did not conclude with anything that looked like it bore on its nominal subject of “quantum gravity.” Nonetheless it got through whatever reviewing process was applied, and was published because, according to a later statement by one of the editors of the journal in question, it appeared to be an honest effort by one physicist to come to grips with questions facing his field, even if it was a bit “hokey.” But at the same time the piece’s author confided elsewhere that it was a joke. His statement there was to the effect that he meant to expose the fallaciousness of the science studies movement, whose members should stick to deconstructing the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and leave serious discourse to qualified people.
What is particularly telling about this incident is what it says about our times. If this person had gotten an article that was not seriously meant into a physics journal, he surely would have been drummed out of the profession for falsifying data. But of course his joke was “only” on the humanities. At the time, another of the journal’s editors wrote an Op-Ed in the Times in which he pointed out that the dishonesty involved in the hoax reflected unfavorably on all of academia. Still, one suspects the response of most readers was that he was taking the matter too seriously.
Two lessons to be learned from all this are that, first, you cannot expect the “scientists” to be rational in responding to any study of their endeavor that does not automatically endorse its assumptions, even if it allows that these might be correct, and second, that you had better watch your back if you embark on one. If one reads the criticisms of sociology of science adduced by physicists, it is clear that they do not recognize the distinction the latter carefully draw between bracketing a subject’s truth claims and debunking them. I infer that this failure is because the physicists simply view as equivalent any statement whatsoever about their particular subject that does not recognize their own absolute authority over these truth claims. And if you wish to question this authority, be aware that we no longer live in the times when “Renaissance Men” were taken seriously for humanities as well as for their science.
I do not feel that I can contribute to such modern science studies cogently at present (though I once contemplated doing so eventually), but others might be motivated to pursue critical study of science from a more normative stance than the sociologists of science have taken. Granted that the powerful in society will largely ignore you, so that you will always be on the defensive, you might feel that science is too important to be left to the persons called scientists. Even if few listen to you, at least you will know.
In any case, as for the humanities in general, if what I have suggested here is wrong and scientists are not really ignorant about their own subject, as a rule they are ignorant about others. And ignorance is particularly dangerous when it accrues to persons with the prestige accorded to scientists in our times. Someone should study the other subjects, to keep them alive if for no other reason, while perhaps hoping that a new Renaissance will eventually arrive.
E. F. Beall