display | more...
With respect to Dirac Tesseract, the examples he gives are exactly what Rushdie's quote in haggai's writeup is warning against. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle does not say "nothing is certain" (or even "by measuring one aspect we must change another"). What it says is that the product of uncertainties of particular pairs of measurements (the typical example is position and momentum (or velocity)) cannot go below a certain constant. It's saying something very precise: if you know the values of, say, position and momentum for an object, then there is an inherent inaccuracy (not due to your lack of understanding, intelligence, scientific training or measuring apparatus) in each measurement, and the product of these inaccuracies is at least some (small) number.

Physics is the science of measurement, and this is a fundamental law of measurement!

As such, it has nothing to do with the Douglas Adams quote. The Uncertainty Principle is not about how inexplicable and complicated the Universe is. On the contrary! It explains something about the Universe.

All of this is explained in popular physics books. It's not a matter of worship. Why would one want to worship Einstein or Dirac or Heisenberg or Hawking or SomeGreatPhysicist, anyway? One can admire them as scientists or as people (although the latter might be inadvisable in the case of Heisenberg). And I cannot see how distorting their ideas and putting words into their mouths that they never said can increase their glory. Surely it is simple respect to a person to know what they did say and what they didn't!

Modern Physics Abuse Syndrome doesn't stem from some disparate chaotic state of knowledge and ignorance in the world. No, it's entirely different. People have their own theories (about social science, as in the Social Text affair, or about Douglas Adams, or about how one should build a measuring device, or about the desired social order). In order to add credibility to their theory, they make some weak analogy to a physical principle (or, in the majority of cases, to the name of some physical principle). And then they pass off their own theories as part of a properly-developed and often well-proven theory. It's not even the appeal to authority (since the authority in this case never said what is claimed). The charitable assumption is that this is due to ignorance of the actual facts.

But ignorance of the laws of physics is no defence for misusing their titles. Who makes an analogy had better know both sides of it.


In response to Tmaq, below...

It seems to me absurd to claim that Newtonian physics and Special Relativity (and maybe also General Relativity) are intuitive, in a way in which Quantum Mechanics is not. Allow me to express my misgivings on the treatment of Newtonian physics as "intuitive", therefore, as this would appear to be the strongest of Tmaq's claims.

If Newtonian physics is so obvious, then what the hell is all the fuss around Newton? The man just formalized something for which we have excellent intuition, according to Tmaq.

Studying the history of science, we see that Galileo, and maybe people such as Stevens before him, had similarly radical ideas. Good for them! But what about those idiots before the 16th century in Europe? How did the (allegedly intuitive) concepts of force and momentum elude greater thinkers along over 10,000 years?

What about today? How intuitive is Newtonian physics? Well, let's pretend we don't know that sizable proportions of the general public are willing to buy almost any non-Newtonian and anti-Newtonian tripe dished up by the newspapers. I want to talk about the person who, to my mind at least, best personifies the educated modern person -- MYSELF.

I've caught myself asking (myself, luckily) "where does the energy to brake a 747 on the ground at full power come from?". (It doesn't. No work is performed in keeping a plane at rest. Come to think of it, when braking a plane after touchdown, the problem is more getting rid of the heat, than applying the force...)

How come I get tired holding a book up? I'm applying force, yet I feel myself using energy. Tmaq replies that I'm sensing the buildup of lactic acid. So much for my intuition: I feel myself getting tired, I really do get tired, BUT had I been a table, say, I'd have been able to apply force without getting tired.

"Intuitive" seems to be "what They taught me in high school". Personally, I think this argument from intuition falls flat. After all, in 200 years' time Quantum Mechanics (or its successor) will be taught in every high school physics class. Even today, the easy bits get taught -- and the bits keep getting easier... I imagine that Tmaq999 will writeup on E1001 that "the difference is that QM is intuitive, but mega-subloop-GUTs are not"...