On the role of language in physics. By Dilip D James M.Sc., A(mus)T.C.L. (Lond)
Historically language has played an extremely important role in physics, with the mathematics for the most part being relegated to a secondary and supporting role. In most instances the following scenario, with varying degrees of deviations, prevailed. A physical phenomenon was observed its properties were noted and then discussed at length and in depth. Different explanations were forwarded to explain this property and if the explanation sounded promising suitable experiments were then prepared to test if the theory would hold up or not. If the theory did not hold up and the experiment ended in failure, new explanations and new theories were devised until finally in this hit and miss manner, a suitable solution was found that seemed to answer all possible questions on the properties of the physical phenomenon that had been observed. It was only then in the second part of the scenario that mathematics was introduced to quantify and qualify the experimental results and if possible to devise a mathematical theorem that would satisfy a whole sequence of results. In the science of mathematics and numbers on the other hand, language played an important albeit less critical role.
Here, as in Euclid’s elements, a theorem was proposed using language and words. Next, preconceived tried and proven mathematical theorems and axioms were applied to the new theorem to show how through the use of axioms and pre-existing theorems the new theorem was explained. Thus through a set of rules referring to angles in a triangle and on a straight line, in a circle and in an arc, and to the manner in which intersecting lines and arcs formed these angles. Euclid was able to make the most amazing relations and perform calculations relating to area, volume and numbers that were to prevail for the next three thousand years and which are still used extensively in the present day. What must be made clear is that both in the case of the study of physics and that of numbers and geometry, language has played an essential role because it was able to explain how these relationships interacted with each other.
Today physicists claim that language plays no role whatsoever in the study of physics and that it only gets in the way of what can only be expressed using purely mathematical symbols and relations. The question that has to be asked is this: Can a study or a science of anything based on purely mathematical symbols and artefacts be of any use to human beings, or even to machines endowed with artificial intelligence? For instance extra dimensions are extensively used in modern day physics. If physicists cannot explain in plain words what these extra dimensions are, what they look like, how they perform and so on, could a machine make more sense of it then we as human beings do? I sincerely doubt it. Even though a lot of lip service might be paid by physicists to the importance of language in the evolution of a theory, the prevailing ground reality is that language is often seen as being detrimental to the advancement of physics. Physicists feel that only a person learned in mathematics at the level of a PhD in Mathematics or of a College Don in Mathematics has any right to gain an understanding of physics. This is a highly derogatory stand to take of the very basis, like it or not of our intelligence, namely our ability to communicate. Human intelligence is not measured through an ability to devise or solve arcane mathematical equations but rather by an ability to sort out what is correct from what is not. Machines too, have to follow similar paradigms if they are not to founder along the way. While an arcane mathematical equation might be solved through the application of equally arcane mathematical solutions, it doesn’t at the end of the day mean that it makes any sense. This is similar to saying that a nonsensical sentence can be constructed, of course it can. Yet that does not mean that it has to make sense! In fact linguistically any number of things could be said that don’t make sense but it is only the things that do make sense that are accepted. Physics has to work in a similar way, if it doesn’t, then it has to be taken as being nonsensical.
What is the role of mathematics in science?
Quantum mechanics has caused some question regarding the increasingly important role that abstract mathematics is playing in science. What are the pros and cons of placing such reliance on mathematics? A question first asked by Wigner was why should mathematics be so extraordinarily effective in science? But, again this statement is a purely subjective interpretation that has little place in a science as is the question of :” Why do all our insights and discoveries in science so naturally lend themselves to mathematics?” The question being does mathematics really lend itself so naturally, as is claimed to insights and discoveries in science or does this statement deserve to be classified as rhetoric?
What is mathematics and what is its role in science? It is interesting to compare questions asked earlier about the role of language in science and to pose those same questions in regard to mathematics. Is mathematics simply the vehicle or tool of science or does it does it play a more positive and active role? While there may be some doubt as to the answers to these questions, there can be no doubt on the mind-set of a large number of physicists involved in quantum mechanics and superstring theories that mathematics plays a supernatural role in physics, possessing the ability of delving into arcane places and bringing out the truth whatever that might be in an understandable form. Something, they claim that mere language lacks the ability to do. So the question of, “Is mathematics somehow more or less than a language?” is important. Are there things that can only be done and thought in mathematics and not in language? Are there methodologies in mathematics that do not exist in language? Or is it simply that mathematics allows certain operations to be performed in a more compact and efficient way? In what ways is mathematics less general than a language and what does it lose or gain by this lack of generality?
A particular characteristic of mathematics which appears in one aspect to differentiate it from language is its appeal to visual thinking. Of course geometry and topology make direct appeal to visual conformation and to short cuts in thinking that require manipulations in a sort of mental visual space. However, as had been stated earlier with reference to Euclid’s elements, here too language plays a crucial role in introducing each new theorem and stating its bounds and limitations through reference to pre-existing theorems and relations. Some Scientists venture even further away from science and into the realm of the psychic by claiming that visualizations also occur in branches of mathematics that are not directly connected with the properties of space. Mathematicians claim that some of their thinking is quite different than that which uses language. Einstein himself appears to have been aware of a level of thinking which involved muscular tensions within the body and an almost tactile experience of space. In this sense therefore mathematics would appear to be both more and less than a language for while being limited in its linguistic capabilities it also seems to involve a form of thinking that has something in common with art and music. Yet symbol for symbol, note for note, word for word, mathematics just does not possess the massive presence that a language does in interpreting human experience and discoveries, this is something about which, doubts should not exist. In terms of lexicon, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics and its interpretation by the human mind there can be little doubt that language possesses superior capabilities to those of possessed by mathematics.
What is wave-particle duality:
One of the examples of where physicists claim that mathematics offers a superior understanding is wave-particle duality. What is it? And, how did physicists come to the startling conclusion that mathematics would serve better than language in describing it?
Our notion of reality is built on everyday experiences. But wave-particle duality is such a strange concept that physicists claim that we are forced to re-examine our common conceptions. Is this a true statement or is false? On the answer to this question lies the future of physics. Wave-particle duality refers to the fundamental property of matter where, at one moment it appears like a wave, and yet at another moment acts like a particle. To understand wave-particle duality it’s worth looking at the differences between particles and waves. We are all familiar with particles, whether they are marbles, ball bearings, grains of sand, salt in a salt-shaker, atoms, electrons, and so on.
The properties of particles can be demonstrated with a ball bearing. The bearing is a spherical lump of metal located at some point in space. If we flick the ball bearing with our finger, we impart energy to it — this is kinetic energy, and the moving marble takes this energy with it. A handful of ball bearings thrown in the air come crashing down, each ball bearing imparting energy where it strikes the floor.
In contrast, waves are spread out. Examples of waves are the big rollers on the open ocean, ripples in a pond, sound waves and light waves. If at one moment the wave is localized, sometime later it will have spread out over a large region, like the ripples when we drop a pebble in a pond. The wave carries with it energy related to its motion. Unlike the particle, the energy is distributed over space because the wave is spread out.
Why waves are so different from particles
Colliding particles will bounce off each other but colliding waves pass through one another and emerge unchanged. But overlapping waves can interfere — where a trough overlaps a crest the wave can disappear altogether. This can be seen when parts of a wave pass through closely spaced holes in a screen. The waves spread out in all directions and interfere, leading to regions in space where the wave disappears and regions where it becomes stronger.
The image below shows an example of the double slit experiment invented by English polymath Thomas Young. This phenomenon is called diffraction.
In contrast, a marble thrown at the screen either bounces off or goes straight through one of the holes. On the other side of the screen, the marble will be found travelling in one of two directions, depending on which hole it went through. The Double Slit Experiment has been upheld by quantum mechanics as being the ultimate proof of wave-particle duality. Given below is an interpretation that seems to question this assertion:
Here is an alternative explanation of how the Double Slit Experiment works based on the assumption that light travels through an all-pervasive medium. We know ( the aetherists know) that the whole of space and indeed the Universe itself is permeated by a medium that allows light (electromagnetic radiation) to propagate. According to GAT (Gestalt Aether Theory), this medium itself consists of virtual photons of such low energy that they are completely permeable to matter. Looked at from this point of view it is simple to deduce what happens. When the Aether (medium) encounters the double slits in an open state it passes through both slits and creates an interference pattern! The particles that are subsequently released merely follow the pattern that the Aether has already made and create an interference pattern on the screen. What could be more natural? Further, this explains the results in the Double slit experiment Phase B: How does it do this? Take into account the fact that the only way to detect particles is through a photo-detector. In order to work the photo-detector has to make its own field when this field is disturbed it means a particle has been detected. But when this field is disturbed it also means that the interference pattern created by the Aether is also disturbed since the Aether might undergo polarization when the photo-detectors activate their fields. In any case, the interference pattern disappears and the particles go straight through and create a diffraction pattern. Since particles are only detected going through one slit this explanation of the existence of some kind of medium that influences the paths of sub-atomic particles makes more sense than the quantum mechanics explanation of cognisance on the part of particles or that they can be in two places at once and other equally esoteric and eerie explanations. On the question of whether an Aether like medium can exist, there seems to exist strong proof that such a medium can exist and that it can permeate the whole of the Universe. Arguments and proofs can be found at The Electromagnetic Universe :
Wave goodbye to waves
The phenomenon of diffraction is a well-known property of light waves. But at the beginning of the 20th century, a problem was found with the theories of light waves emitted from hot objects, such as hot coals in a fire or light from the sun.
This light is called black-body radiation. These theories would always predict infinite energy for the light emitted beyond the blue end of the spectrum — the ultraviolet catastrophe. The answer was to assume the energy of light waves was not continuous but came in fixed amounts, as if it was composed of a large number of particles, like our handful of ball bearings. So the notion came about that light waves act like particles — these particles are called photons.
If light, that we thought was wave-like, also behaves like a particle, could it be that objects such as electrons and atoms, that are particle-like, can behave like waves and vice versa?
The words appearing in bold face in the above sentence are the crux of the whole problem. Because here we are taking a wave; namely light (photons) that is not tangible, is not localised, has no mass and comparing it to a solid structure that possesses locality mass and dimensions. This is absolutely unforgivable and unfounded, something that cannot at any level be accepted as a scientific truth. In order to demonstrate how false is this reasoning one need only think of the molecule of life, namely DNA, or go into the question even more deeply and look at the individual amino acids of which that molecule of life is made. If these atoms and molecules were part wave part particle, life as we know it would not, or to put it more positively, could not exist! It is only because these individual atoms and molecules are able to maintain a definite dependable form that they can take on the responsibilities that result in the creation of life. To blithely state, as quantum mechanics does, that because sub-atomic particles, are small that they can be either wave or particle as circumstance demands is absurd in the extreme. The miracle lies not in the fact that atomic and sub-atomic particles are both wave and particle but that even at that extremely small scale they continue to obey the laws of physics. An object with mass cannot be considered to be a wave, in the real sense that a wave is a wave!
By introducing the concept of wave-particle duality into physics, quantum mechanics has dropped the biggest spanner not into the works but as a clanger that resounds through every part of modern mainstream physics. Without this massive error on the part of quantum mechanics, physics, like Chemistry, like biology, like genetics, would have made giant strides. The fact that it has managed to perform as well as it has done despite this massive error in its midst is cause for elation. Yet it is time to admit the error and to move on.