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Saturday, May 19, 2007
Frank Tipler: Evangelical Fundamentalist
This morning Niles and I had the following conversation, prompted by this Instapundit post:
I am too, especially when I read guff like this.
The outrage continues:
And quite right, too. GR and the Standard Model may be fundamental, but they are just not that important to most working physicists. Forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious, but physics is an enormous field. Besides GR (which is only really useful in certain astrophysical problems) and cosmology/particle physics, physics encompasses things like
As I started compiling this list, I realized it was going to get difficult because there's a lot of overlap between the fields: e.g. acoustics can be thought of as fluid mechanics -- i.e. the motion of waves in air -- but you can also have sound waves in solid matter, which falls under the realm of "materials physics".
The first four of these fall in the category of "condensed matter" physics, which, according to this (WARNING!) Wikipedia page, is the field of one-third of all physicists. This entire field deals, at the fundamental level, with the interactions of electrons, and requires neither GR nor particle physics. None of the fields above do, and neither does much of atomic & molecular (A&M) physics (e.g. spectroscopy) -- which another huge subfield of physics.
This morning I browbeat Niles into hearing bits of Tipler's article, and he reminded me that his position has always been that undergraduate education as it is known today is crap. You're taught a lot of stuff you'll never ever need, delaying your career until you're old and gray. He thinks that everything should be on-the-job training, and you can still sleep soundly knowing that the Standard Model is a closed book to you.
Then again, he is a victim of the British educational system, which tells its students that scientists have no need of history.
I never formally studied GR or particle physics, and have never needed them in my work. Without blowing my s00per-sekrit cover, I can tell you that my work requires:
But mostly it requires a lot of stuff I just had to pick up along the way. I never took fluid mechanics, for example, except for some aerodynamics courses in my mis-spent youth.
Niles thinks it should all be like that, but I believe that most of the picked-up stuff was made easier by having studied similar subjects. (As a counter-example, I took quantum mechanics before I took classical mechanics, and was completely mystified by the concept of the Hamiltonian. When I finally got around to classical mechanics, it all became clear. I'm still pretty flummoxed by QM as a whole, though.)
The thing is, you never know what it is you'll need to know. Therefore you try get as general education as possible in the limited amount of time you have.
When I was an undegraduate, here are the sorts of classes you were expected
You were also required to take two physics electives and two math electives, plus a semester each of English composition, technical writing, and history, and nine semesters of humanities.
I confess I'm cheating somewhat, cribbing from the current requirements (there seems to be a new class, Intro. to Theoretical Physics, which I didn't have to take back in the day). These current requirements call for four semesters of fifteen hours each, two of sixteen hours, and two of eighteen hours. Eighteen hours, friends, is a full load. (In my day, twelve was considered full-time, and fifteen was about standard. The most I took was 17.)
Anyhow, Tipler's explanation for this is:
No. 1 is very possibly true. No. 2, even if true, is irrelevant, because the Standard Model is not "basic" to (say) a solid state experimentalist's field. No. 3 is just plain goofy; I don't know whether it's applicable to English departments, but most physicists don't go around in a postmodern nihilistic funk. The ones who ask what are the fundamental truths are the excited ones. Do we know what they are? Are there new ones to be discovered? And how can I get me some of that?
The true reason is much more prosaic: since you only have time for so much, you have to teach courses that will give the most benefit to most people. And however fundamental to the universe (and cool) particle physics and GR might be, they're not fundamental to the research of vast majorities of physicists.
There's also the teeny tiny point that the math required for these classes is hairy, so they'd have to be delayed until the senior year. GR, in particular, requires a knowledge of tensors, so you'd have to have a tensor pre-requisite or teach tensors in class.
Rand Simberg, a man much too smart for the position he's taking here, agrees. See the comments for other views. In there somewhere, Rand seems to acknowledge that a survey class in modern physics would serve the purpose. That, I'm all for. If, for example, the section on the standard model can be thought of as an elaboration on this chart, that would be great.
But to make all physics undergrads take GR and particle theory just because they're "fundamental" is tantamount to requiring all biology students to take quantum mechanics, because, hey, it's "fundamental" to chemistry, which is fundamental to biology. (Even chemists gripe about having to take p-chem, which is a long way from QM.)
My fluids are only weakly charged, else I could call myself a plasma physicist. I remember an Arthur C. Clarke book in which he was describing some phenomenon I've forgotten, and at the end he remarked that, "This field is called magnetohydrodynamics, and those who study it, God help them, are magnetohydrodynamicists." Niles started out as a magnetohydrodynamicist, but he got better.
I tried to work Lavoisier into that sentence, but couldn't quite make it.
Isn't that site great? I know what a tensor is (it's like a vector, but in more than three dimensions) and it still scared the hell out of me. Precision is the enemy of clarity, remember that.