John Ziman on the true enchantment of physics

  • The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav
    Hutchinson, 352 pp, £4.50, October 1979, ISBN 0 09 139401 5

No scientist worth his research grant really wants to conceal his discoveries from the world at large. Many non-scientists are curious to know something of the latest scientific discoveries. There would seem to be quite enough moral earnestness and prospects of profit to get this gap bridged. Alas, the chasm is wide and deep, especially where it guards the mysterious heights of modern physics. As some recent television programmes have demonstrated, even a skilful web of visual aids and journalistic conceits may not succeed in establishing a connection between specialist and general knowledge of atoms, particles, forces and fields.

Some masters of high science have become sceptical of any possibility of popularising their subject without making a mere caricature of what they know and love. But it is more in keeping with scholarly universalism to welcome every effort of this kind with positive good will. Let us applaud the courage of Mr Zukav, who came to the edge of the chasm with no previous education in physics, and who has tried to build a bridge across it from the lay person’s side.

What is more – and this probably explains the considerable popular success of this book in America – his spirit has been uplifted by a personal vision concerning the nature of his subject. Whether or not he began with the laudable purpose of explaining physics as the physicists see it, he has evidently been seized with zeal to interpret what he was told in far wider terms. This is a book with a philosophical message, which the author summarises incidentally: ‘“The exact sciences” no longer study an objective reality that runs its course regardless of our interest in it or not, leaving us to fare as best we can while it goes its predetermined way. Science, at the level of subatomic events, is no longer exact, the distinction between objective and subjective has vanished, and the portals through which the Universe manifests itself are, as we once knew a long time ago, those impotent, passive witnesses to its unfolding; the “I’s”, of which we, insignificant we, are examples. The Cogs in the Machine have become the Creators of the Universe.’

We are thus faced with two distinct questions: has Mr Zukav given a satisfactory exposition of the new physics, and is his interpretation convincing. These questions demand fair and measured answers. For all our sympathy with the objectives of this work, we must not neglect our duty to indicate to the uninformed reader how far this sophisticated subject has been correctly represented.

Does Mr Zukav succeed in explaining the essence of the new physics to somebody as ignorant as he was when he began? Not being in that situation myself, I cannot judge whether what he says about various aspects of quantum theory, relativity and particle physics conveys an intelligible picture. The book could scarcely have had such a wide appeal if it did not make satisfactory contact with the minds of its ordinary readers. His bridge is constructed with simple words, short sentences, homely images and trite sentiments, but I have no idea whether it will bear any traffic. Many of his paragraphs state basic facts and concepts in a more or less coherent logical order, but there may be vital disjunctions in such a skeletal account of this highly articulated subject.

The real difficulty with physics, of course, is that it is inextricably bound up with mathematics. Mr Zukav is probably right in excluding all mathematical formulae and equations: most people are confused and frightened, rather than instructed and delighted, by symbolic representations of simple arguments. But there comes a point where an argument may be so complicated that it is actually easier to learn it as a mathematical formula than to express it in ordinary words. It is all very well to regard mathematics as the tool of physics, and to suggest that ‘stripped of mathematics, physics becomes pure enchantment.’ But this neglects the fact that the relationships implied in the fundamental laws of physics cannot be represented at all concisely of precisely in everyday language, and have been discovered and analysed primarily in terms of special mathematical dialects that have had to be invented for just this purpose. This is the opinion of most theoretical physicists, based upon the sobering experience of trying to understand the subject for themselves and to teach it to others. Indeed, I would go further, to argue that physics can best be defined as the science that strives to represent the natural world in mathematical form: the enchanting phenomena that, have been discovered by research in physics have unconsciously been selected or contrived to demonstrate this sharp and scintillating aspect of the totality of things. In other words, mathematics is as much of the essence of modern physics as the skeleton is of the human body: take it away, and the whole organism rapidly disintegrates into a shapeless bag of flesh.

Just occasionally, a true master of the subject has contrived to convey its inner meaning without recourse to formal mathematics. But this, alas, is not one of those rare works of genius. Lacking a precise grasp of the subject, Mr Zukav has to keep covering up his ignorance with sloppy generalisations that are often grotesquely distorted. The most disturbing aspect of his book is that he expresses his indebtedness to a number of professional physicists who read the entire manuscript on his behalf. He has been ill-served. On almost every page there are errors that would be apparent to a first-year undergraduate – errors of fact, errors of interpretation, and even errors of history. Minor errors, of course, make a tasty hors d’ocuvres for the pedantic reviewer, before he gets down to the meat of his condemnation of ill-conceived scholarship. In this case, however, the mistakes are so grievous for example, almost every diagram is wrongly drawn that it is all too clear that the author has not really understood the elements of what he is talking about; those scientists who are said to have advised him should be quite ashamed to show how little trouble they have really taken to help a sincere seeker after truth.

For all its earnestness, and for all the labour that has been put into it and, indeed, for all the reputation that it seems to have acquired this book is quite unreliable as an exposition of the new physics. In content, in manner and in spirit, it goes entirely against the grain of a science that is characterised by precision, logical necessity, depth and originality of thought.

This is a pity, because there is something to be said for Mr Zukav’s argument that the fundamentals of physics have shifted decisively away from the mechanistic objectivity of point particles moving through classical space and time under the influence of continuous fields of force. For example, recent formal developments (‘Bell’s Theorem’) and experimental tests have reaffirmed the paradoxical implications of quantum physics: there are certain observable phenomena that simply cannot be interpreted in the everyday language and logic of localisation and causality. Under some circumstances, it seems as if the result of a physical measurement at point A (e.g. the direction of polarisation of a ‘photon’ of light) can affect the result of making a similar measurement on another photon at another point B at almost the same instant, just as if the two particles maintained some information link along which messages could travel much faster than light itself, even when the particles are far apart. This paradox was first pointed out some fifty years ago, and yet it still stands out, like a sore thumb, as an insult to our feeling for physical reality. In the limits of the very large and the very small, in cosmology, and in the physics of elementary particles, there are many other counterintuitive concepts-the warped space-time geometry of general relativity, the relativistic transformation of motion into mass, the duality of wave and particle descriptions, the vacuum as a seething ocean of invisible excitations, forces as the manifestation of the exchange of virtual particles – whose theoretical and experimental validity is now accepted with almost the same confidence among physicists as Newton’s Laws of motion and Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism amongst mechanical and electrical engineers.

It must be emphasised that this apparent movement of physics from hard-nosed realism to a much more open and imaginative stance has occurred in pursuit of its traditional goals of precision, logical consistency, empirical accuracy etc. The new physics seems more subtle and complex, more paradoxical and counter-intuitive than ever before – and yet it is more unified and covers a wider range of observable phenomena. It would be quite wrong to suggest, for example, that because we are hard put to it to give a mechanistic description of the two-photon correlation phenomenon we are somehow all at sea in the world of sub-atomic particles: on the contrary, theoretical physics grows continually more powerful as a means of patterning and predicting the flow of events as experienced and measured by physical scientists and their instruments. Although we would mostly repudiate the theological slogan credo quia absurda, there is a tremendous fascination in putting an apparent absurdity into the logico-empirical machinery of an advanced science and refashioning it into a well-founded belief. Theoretical physicists are delighted, rather than worried, by ideas that challenge their abilities to understand, to reduce to order, to simplify, or to generalise, and don’t care much what the philosophers may say about their ultimate significance or overall consistency.

Nor do they care all that much what philosophers and others think about the nature of physics itself, and its possible meaning for non-physicists. There are many popularisations of modern physics, written from inside the subject, that take current scientific paradigms as unexceptionable, or make rather vague connections with traditional philosophical concerns: there are very few works that deal seriously, in full scientific depth, with the profound epistemological and ontological implications of modern quantum theory for various conventional metaphysical systems such as materialism, realism, positivism or idealism. I do not, myself, believe that theoretical physics is somehow so privileged, among all branches of organised knowledge, that it should be regarded as the only rational foundation for a ‘world view’;, there is much more to life and reality than can be reduced to elementary particles and analysed in terms of S-matrices and Feynman diagrams. Nevertheless, the way in which modern physics can, so to speak, conjure with paradoxes and ‘absurdities’ without factual contradiction should be a warning to all philosophical system-builders of the fallibility of their logical instincts and verbal intuitions. As usual, Nature is much cleverer than we are, and continually discontinue the most cherished products of our individual tiny minds.

The Dancing Wu Li Masters belongs, in fact, to a much more familiar literary genre: works that seek, from the science of their day, support for preconceived philosophical, religious or political views that range far beyond science itself. Did not Plato draw from the static perfections of geometry to justify the archaic authoritarianism of his Republic? Eighteenth-century divines claimed Newton as their ally for one scheme of Providence or another. Darwin’s theory of biological evolution was enlisted on behalf of several different social ideologies. The supposed connection between the relativity physics of Einstein and artistic movements such as Cubism used to be a staple of trendy aesthetic circles.

It is quite obvious that Mr Zukav came to physics with some strong views of his own about the nature of things. Instead of trying to grasp what physicists themselves have to say about their subject, and learning to see the physical world through their eyes, he cannot resist the temptation to reinterpret everything he is told in favour of his own preconceived notions. His book is not, as he claims, ‘an overview of the new physics’ but a very naive attempt to show that even physics, the most fundamental and esoteric of the natural sciences, positively supports a particular line of religio-philosophical thought whose actual roots lie fat away from modern science. This line of thought, by its very own terms, must never be defined: but the title of the book, and the extracts I have quoted, are sufficiently indicative of its affinities and characteristics. Zen Buddism, that profoundly sensitive but rarefied spiritual movement, lends it some poetic grace: otherwise, it is a vague conglomeration of mystical pantheism and intellectual anarchy where ‘consciousness’ rules (OK?) and where, in principle, ‘anything goes.’ I suspect that even an expert on cults of this kind would be hard put to it to identify it in greater detail.

In some ways, of course, this permissive world view is a salutary corrective to the scientism and positivism of the traditional philosophy of science. There is much that might be learnt from it, not only for its ethical quietism and spiritual solace, but also as a source of possible new themes for science itself. Several excellent books – for example, Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics and Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach – have explored these themes in some depth. But Mr Zukav thinks and writes too wildly and irresponsibly to establish these connections. His apologia for the cult of pure subjectivity carries no conviction. He simply has not understood the true enchantment of physics, which is its power to construct a taut framework out of concepts and phenomena that are both fantastic and realistic, precisely designed and yet wonderfully imagined, well-founded in fact, yet soaring into delicate pinnacles of ambivalence and paradox. There it stands, on the other side of the gulf of comprehension which he has clearly recognised but has signally failed to bridge.