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Personal Position Statement


There's a lot of talk these days about the democratisation of knowledge. Knowledge empowers, so the talk goes, and power brings responsibility. We are each of us urged to take responsibility both for what society collectively knows and for what it does with that knowledge. Science, one sometimes hears, is too important to be left to scientists. Some might suppose this to mean not only that we all ought to have a stake in the processes of acquiring and developing knowledge, but even that we all can.

Whenever democracy is mentioned it is a signal that one will have to ruefully deconstruct one or two fond idealisations before getting down to cases.

Obviously science wouldn't work at all as a real democracy. In principle democracy enshrines the individual's right to freedom of expression - well, fair enough; anyone can write a letter or a web page. But in principle democracy allows individuals to hold authority to account every few years and vote for the political philosophy of their choice. There may be those who'd want to extend political correctness to physics if they could, but we don't vote for the manifestos of relativists and quantum theorists, and in general we wouldn't want to if we were invited. Deep down under our hubris we know that scientific merit isn't decided like that.

But that doesn't mean that there isn't a politics of ideas. Science is a parliament where there are usually quite a few vociferous independents to break up the natural division of the house into big parties, but when all's said and done this is a private democracy that only counts the "votes" of its elected members. The rest of us are confined to the public areas, or watch on television.

And for good reason. How else could the cognocracy pursue the objectives for which it exists? Who would dream of staffing a high-class restaurant with cullinary novices? Apparently some would. Part of the myth of the democratisation of information, which feeds on the existence of the web and all the associated technismo of instant communication, is that there're no real experts anymore. Who needs them? We've got facts coming out of our cybernetic ears. Everyone can be an expert and everyone has an opinion.

I find myself on both sides of this cultural divide, camped outwith the walls of academe, knee-deep in know-nothing bullshit, ears ringing with the mantra of "break down the barriers", crying "Stop, you know not what you do!" as the seige-engines advance. But I'm not above commandeering a catapault for myself! I find myself in the position of hoping to force my opinion on those whose right and duty to discount it I most deeply respect. I can only hope they'll check it out before lobbing it back.

I once saw transcribed some piece of graffiti from a city wall of ancient Rome, a littany of world-weary frustration with the self-obssession of modern life that ended in disgust: "and these days every man wants to write a book!"

Ah, sadly 'twas ever thus. So here I go . . .

 

Now it goes without saying that the argument I make for parcellular mechanics is deeply flawed on a number of levels.

Probably some highly numerate people who bother to study it, if any do, will roll their eyes at its mathematical naiveté. An intuition for the heft and balance of mathematical tools and levers is useless, they may say, without the hands-on apprenticeship needed to learn how to use them expertly. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

A related criticism can be expected from physicists who will point out that modern quantum theory is not a set of conceptual principles manipulated by mathematics, it is mathematics, and cannot be understood without it. Indeed, the position often taken is that quantum theory cannot be understood at all, and that only its predictive numbers have any meaning. Not only are intuitive conceptualisations too clumsy to capture the fine detail of mathematical reasoning, they have no place in physics, even in principle. The best of them are only crippled analogies for subtle networks of equations, and to take seriously a lumpen conceptual argument as a foundation for some yet-to-be-devised mathematical formalism is to put the cart so far in front of the horse as to be beyond the horizon radius of the cosmos!

In addition to these general failings there will of course be others, too numerous to contemplate, stemming from sheer ignorance, carelessness, half-wittedness and so forth, compounded by inapt modes of expression leading then to further misunderstandings on the part of a reader who is entitled to expect at least logical rigour but won't always get it.

If anyone has accidentally come to this site expecting better, then I'm sorry to disappoint. In my defense, I'm just a guy doing his best and at least I'm trying. Moreover, only in fondest drink-fuelled fantasy have I ever imagined hearing the respectful applause of the professional physics community. I do however believe in my intuition.

I've been trying hard for years now to say something in the language of physics, and I believe that it's more than a truism. I believe that the difference between what I'm struggling to say and what others have already said is more than semantic (although I'm encouraged to detect resonances from time to time). But the best I can hope for is to find a metaphor, an analogy, a form of words, a tone of voice - whatever it takes - which will express this idea sufficiently vividly to enthuse someone else, and then hope that the someone in question is smarter and better-schooled than I am.

So I concede that even if I'm right to trust my intuition parcellular mechanics may be no more than what someone once called "an idea for an idea", an unpromising footpath that might lead to a road that could eventually allow someone to catch a train of thought.

The train would probably terminate somewhere completely unrecognisable, but that's OK. Don't they always?

Martin Shough

 

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