Friday, May 6, 2011

Whiskey Tango Friday: Deep Physics and Analogies

XKCD does an excellent job illustrating a huge problem one encounters when trying to explain theoretical work: simplifying how the world works for explanation to the lay person through the use of analogy often robs the listener of true depth and complexity of the situation. True understanding of the world takes years of dedicated study; there are no short cuts.

Expanded upon in great detail by Richard Feynman (especially at the six minute mark):

One of the greatest theoretical courses I ever took was a graduate level electrodynamics course. The entire class was chalk and chalkboard for 3 hours a week. The professor began with Maxwell's equations and moved through derivations until we had two equations that described the combination of slowly varying, quickly diminishing electric and magnetic fields and the rapidly varying fields that propagate through space- light. It was one of the most enlightening moments of my life, and it took years to arrive at this point. I had taken many courses in physics and upper level math, but it culminated to this one moment in time when I actually understood light. I could do my best to use analogies to put this description of the world in terms that someone without a deep mathematical background could grasp, but I would be robbing them of the truly transcendent moment of deep comprehension.

This is a great problem in physics: it is nigh-impossible to impart the depth or appreciation of the knowledge gleaned from this discipline because of the background required to truly understand it. It must be emphasized that this is not a slight on anyone- the smartest people in the world can not tackle these issues without the proper tools.

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