Wednesday, February 22, 2017

“And you’re right too”

General relativity v. quantum mechanics:

A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or have neglected to communicate with each other for at least a century. In the morning the world is curved space where everything is continuous; in the afternoon it is a flat space where quanta of energy leap.

The paradox is that both theories work remarkably well. Nature is behaving with us like that elderly rabbi to whom two men went in order to settle a dispute. Having listened to the first, the rabbi says: “You are in the right.” The second insists on being heard, the rabbi listens to him and says: “You’re also right.” Having overheard from the next room the rabbi’s wife then calls out, “But they can’t both be in the right!” The rabbi reflects and nods before concluding: “And you’re right too.”

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre (London: Penguin, 2016).
The work of reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics has given rise to the study of quantum gravity, the subject of Rovelli’s more recent book, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity (2017). I suspect that it’s a much scarier book than Seven Brief Lessions: 288 pages v. a mere 79.

I cannot claim to understand any of this stuff, not now, perhaps not ever. But I can try.

Also from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Elementary particles

comments: 2

Fresca said...

I might need to read these brief lessons. I'm liking the quotes.
Physics makes my head wobble, but in a pleasant way.

Michael Leddy said...

Me too. I tried A Brief History of Time a while ago and found that my grasp of the argument vanished whenever I shut the book. Seven Brief Lessons stays with me a bit better.