Sean Carroll wants you to talk about physics like a baseball game

The following is an excerpt from The biggest ideas in the universe: space, time and motion by Sean Carroll.

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The biggest ideas in the universe: space, time and motion

My dream is to live in a world where most people share their sentimental views and opinions on modern physics. When you’re kicking off after a hard day at work, head to the bar with friends, and argue over your favorite dark matter candidate, or competing interpretations of quantum mechanics. A world where kids run around at a birthday party, one parent says, “I don’t understand why anyone would think there should be new particles near the electroweak scale,” and another immediately replies, “So how is the world going to tackle the hierarchy problem? After all, people have opinions about supply-side economics or monetary race theory. Why not inflationary cosmology and superstring theory?

This is not quite the world we live in. Physics is a field by and for professionals, even more so than most other academic disciplines. Practitioners speak to each other in a highly specialized language, a language dominated by mathematical concepts most people have never heard of, let alone mastered. There are reasonable reasons for this, but it doesn’t have to be this way. This situation is due in large part to the ways in which physicists tend to share their knowledge with the rest of the world.

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If you’re not an expert interested in learning about modern physics, you basically have two options. The first is to stay at a common level of interpretation, where you can learn about some related concepts without going into technical or mathematical details. You can read books, go to lectures, watch videos, and listen to podcasts. The good news is that we have a vibrant ecosystem of such resources, and it is possible to learn a little, albeit in a somewhat haphazard way. But in the end, you know you’re not getting the real stuff. What you get are pictures, metaphors, and rough translations of the basic mathematical essence into regular language. You can go an impressive distance on this route, but there is always something vital missing.

The other path is to become a physics student. This can be literally at a university, or by compiling appropriate textbooks and online resources. Along the way, you’ll need to become proficient in a good deal of math: most importantly calculus and differential equations, but also aspects of vector analysis, complex numbers, linear algebra, and more. The ride will be rewarding, but frustratingly slow. It usually takes at least a year of introductory courses before a student hears about relativity or quantum mechanics. Most physics students can get an undergraduate degree—or even make every effort to get a Ph.D.—without learning about particle physics, black holes, or cosmology. These goodies are only reserved for specialists in certain subfields.

The gap between learning physics as an interested hobbyist, relying on ambiguous metaphors and translations, and becoming a certified expert, comfortable surmounting equations of frightening complexity is wide but not unbridgeable. Just because I don’t want to be a professional race car driver doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be allowed to drive at all. There is surely a way to engage with some of the intrinsic essence of modern physics – even if it means looking at some equations – without delving into years of standard approaches.

That’s exactly what I set out to do in The Biggest Ideas in the Universe, a series dedicated to the idea that it’s possible to learn modern physics for real equations and all, even if you’re more of an amateur than a professional and have every intention of staying that way. It’s for people who have no more math experience than algebra in high school, but are willing to look at the equation and think about what it means. If you’re willing to do some thinking, a new world opens up.

Here’s the thing about equations: they’re not scary. It is just a way of compactly summarizing the relationship between different quantities. And while an equation may include Greek letters, learning to understand an equation doesn’t mean you need to learn how to speak and write Greek.

I think we need a compromise – but first let me make this solution/understanding distinction, as it is key to my dream of talking about physics like baseball. Not only does Einstein’s equation relate to some specific combination of mass and energy with the curvature of some specific spacetime. It’s quite a general relationship, from the figure “You give me some distribution of mass and energy, and I’ll tell you how space-time deflects in response to that.” Fulfilling that promise is what we mean by “solving the equation.”

Sometimes solving an equation is easy: if the equation is x = y2 and we are told that y = 2, then the solution is x = 4. It’s not too difficult. But real-world physics equations are more complex than that, incorporating ideas from calculus (the mathematics of continuous change) and other advanced concepts. Solving such equations can become a full-time profession for working physicists. Therefore, it makes sense that their education consists in large part from learning to solve equations.

But what if we decide that for non-professional physicists there is value in not solving but understanding equations that explain the world around us, even those that are relatively advanced by the standards of a physics textbook. This turned out to be much more palatable and exciting. My goal for one of the biggest ideas in the universe is to make the ideas of modern physics – real ideas, not watered-down metaphors – available to anyone who wants to do some thinking about equations and what they mean.

From The biggest ideas in the universe: space, time and motion By Sean Carroll Courtesy of Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Sean Carroll.

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Sean Carroll

About Sean Carroll

Dr. Sean Carroll is the author of The biggest ideas in the universe: space, time and motionwho is the Homewood Professor of Natural Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

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