Episode Nine – An Interview with the Physicist Juanma


10) You have studied a lot of physics and done some research.  Did you enjoy it? What did you like about it? What did you not like about it?
I have much enjoyed the thrill of advancing humanity’s knowledge, it seems quite a romantic attempt. I actually had a professor who would say that you can’t get any nobler than that.

And it also gives you quite a lot of creative freedom.

What I did not like was that I found that my epistemological standards were mostly incompatible with how I was asked to validate my work. And this is not something related to simply being approved by people around you.  But, you might not be allowed to do some of your work if you do not comply with their standards.  Sometimes my standards were quite different.

11) Do you get the impression that when it comes to certain parts of physics, there are a lot of floating abstractions which nobody understands?
Absolutely, it even propagates back. Modern praxis is contaminating the teaching of classical concepts.

Einstein said that you do not fully understand a physical concept unless you can describe it in such a way that your grandma can understand it. I think that was a very good way of looking at it.


We criticize Einstein a lot around here, but he did have some good things to say.

Well, unfortunately, there’s very little of this today.

It was Bohr who won that debate, so now the general trend is for lecturers to focus on the mathematical development of the theory, with extreme cases where you get scorned at for asking ‘why’.

And that is talking out of experience. I have seen a lecturer laughing at a classmate because she asked “But why is that the case? Why does that happen?”.  And he pointed at the blackboard and said: “That is the mathematical proof, that is the ‘why’. There is no ‘why’ beyond that”.

So, there a quite a lot of floating abstractions.  For example, when classical studied thermodynamics, which is a well-established theory, which was established between the 17th and 19th centuries, I was presented it in an axiomatic way. Pretty much in the same way very abstract mathematics is presented and constructed today.

So, we tried to deduce as much as we could from one axiom. And then once we couldn’t deduce any other things or once we came up with questions we couldn’t find an answer for in our set of axioms, we would add yet another one.  And those axioms would eventually become the Laws of Thermodynamics.

It was a really rationalistic way of presenting the theory and it is exactly the opposite way to which it was induced and discovered.

So, the very same theory which was established in one way across many centuries can be flipped up and looked up from the opposite perceptive. And then what used to be so well established, sadly becomes a total floating abstraction and people really don’t get a hold of the theory.

So yeah, it even back propagates as I say.

Ashna: I dont think too many grandmas would understand much of anything proposed today even if they had a postdoc…

Juanma: That is quite true. We could try it. I have actually tried with my grandma and I would like to think some of the things she got her head around.

Ashna: If any grandma can understand string theory, she is the smartest in history…

Juanma: Well, you are quite right about that. Well, some of them do knitting, so you could use that analogy.  Even if string theorists would tell you to go to the physicist hell because you are talking about a real thing like a thread.

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